Broncos Moving Toward Russell Wilson Decision; Team Eyeing J.J. McCarthy, Bo Nix?

The Steelers became the first team to go through with post-Super Bowl cuts, moving on from former starters Mitchell Trubisky and Chukwuma Okorafor. A much bigger domino is likely to fall in Denver.

Although the Broncos’ path to upgrade on Russell Wilson is complicated, they still are likely to separate from the pricey passer they benched before Week 17. The team and Wilson had gone through a messy behind-the-scenes chapter pertaining to the decorated QB’s guarantee vesting date, but pushback on that decision being strictly contract-related ensued. The Broncos benched Wilson for Jarrett Stidham, and while the latter is almost definitely not the team’s long-term answer, the Payton-Wilson partnership appears in its final days.

Payton confirmed during an appearance on Up & Adams a decision on Wilson should emerge sooner rather than later (video link). The second-year Broncos HC said the team began its draft meetings Monday. When asked if he was looking to “fall in love” with a QB this offseason, Payton responded, “Yeah,” continuing to point to the Broncos absorbing the record-shattering dead money that would come with a Wilson release. Wilson holds a no-trade clause, though his five-year, $245MM deal is not viewed as tradeable on the surface.

It would cost the Broncos $85MM in dead money to release Wilson; that will be spread over two years due to the expected release set to be classified as a post-June 1 cut. That will slot the 2024 dead money at $35.4MM. That number checks in just $300K north of what the Buccaneers absorbed when Tom Brady retired. Of course, Tampa Bay is no longer restricted by any Brady money this year. The Broncos will be set to deal with $49.6MM in dead cap in 2025. That alone will smash the NFL record, one the Falcons still hold (at $40.5MM) after trading Matt Ryan to the Colts in 2022. A Wilson release will need to occur before March 17; his 2025 base salary ($37MM) becomes fully guaranteed on that day.

The Broncos hold the No. 12 overall pick and cannot enter true negotiations with an outside free agent until March 11. The Bucs and Vikings can respectively talk with Baker Mayfield and Kirk Cousins now. If one of those players becomes an option in Denver, such a signing would be costly. Considering the dead money coming via the likely Wilson release, the Broncos would be tying up plenty of cash at QB were they to go with a pricey free agent option. Of course, none of this year’s UFA passers beyond Cousins or Mayfield are expected to be especially expensive.

During an appearance on the Jim Rome Show (via 9News’ Mike Klis), Payton mentioned Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees as quick-processing QBs while notably leaving out Wilson when discussing that important skill in his offense. Known more for off-schedule brilliance than pocket mastery, Wilson had moments in Payton’s offense. He still finished in the top 10 in passer rating, while QBR slotted the ex-Seahawks star 21st. A market is likely to form for the 12-year veteran, though he will not be tied to anything close to the $49MM-per-year deal he signed in Denver. Wilson, 35, is unlikely to command anything near his $35MM-AAV Seahawks extension from 2019. The less Wilson makes, however, the more money the Broncos owe due to offset language.

New NFLPA executive director Lloyd Howell said (via the Washington Post’s Mark Maske) the Broncos mistreated Wilson when they attempted to move his vesting guarantee date from 2024 to 2025. Wilson’s camp said the team threatened a benching had the QB not gone along; Broncos brass denied the benching threat occurred. The NFLPA had urged Wilson to call the team’s bye-week bluff. Wilson did, and the Broncos stayed with him as their starter until they were realistically eliminated from playoff contention. Despite Denver’s limitations when it comes to securing an upgrade this offseason, a reconciliation here — despite Wilson indicating in January he wanted to stay with the team — should be considered highly unlikely.

At No. 12, the Broncos are not realistic candidates to end up with Caleb Williams or Drake Maye. Jayden Daniels‘ rising stock may well ensure the Heisman winner goes off the board well before No. 12. The Broncos have been loosely connected to trading up for one of these passers, but the team — which has not made a first-round pick since 2021, thanks to the Wilson and Payton trades — views the cost as high enough a move into the top three is unlikely.

This would naturally tie the Broncos to this QB class’ second-tier options, and Denver7’s Troy Renck notes that is already happening. Denver is being connected to Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy and Oregon’s Bo Nix within scouting circles, per Renck. An ex-Jim Harbaugh pupil who is not yet 21, McCarthy joins Nix in not yet being a first-round lock. Given the supply-and-demand issues at quarterback, however, it would certainly not surprise to see both prospects be chosen on Day 1.

The Broncos selecting a QB at 12, as opposed to trading up, would be optimal given the draft capital the team surrendered for Wilson and then to obtain Payton’s rights. Excepting Jay Cutler‘s intermittent promise, the Broncos have not had much luck drafting QBs. The franchise’s top passers (John Elway, Peyton Manning, Jake Plummer, Craig Morton) all game via trade or free agency. But Denver will likely be connected to this year’s crop. The 2025 group, although it is still quite early on that front, is viewed as a lesser group. That could force some teams’ hands ahead of this draft.

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