Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton made the rounds around Radio Row this past week in Las Vegas for the run-up to Super Bowl LVIII. Payton was asked the obligatory questions about Russell Wilson, the veteran quarterback's benching, and where the Broncos go from here.
We're now more than a month removed from Payton's end-of-season press conference, where he assured fans that the Wilson decision would be made posthaste and that the nine-time Pro Bowler is still on the roster. The Broncos may be dragging their feet because of the onerous dead-money hit of $34 million if Wilson is released (if he's made a post-June 1 cut), but could Payton be hoping to work things out?
According to NFL insider Ian Rapoport, the Broncos could be gearing up to approach Wilson about a contract restructuring one last time before making a final decision.
The Broncos are keeping all options on the table at QB -- including the possibility of reopening talks with Russell Wilson about restructuring his contract to keep him in Denver for 2024.
Here's the rub: Wilson's current contract will pay him $39 million in 2024. He gets another $37M guaranteed against injury in 2025. Those 2025 guarantees become absolute if he's still on Denver's roster on March 17.
This is the contract the Walton/Penner group agreed to and purportedly sought in its first year as owners of the Broncos. GM George Paton was the point-man negotiator, but reports claimed that the Walton/Penners really wanted to get Wilson tied up contractually before the 2022 season began so that the quarterback could start his tenure in Denver on the right foot.
That decision blew up in their faces. Wilson received a five-year, $245 million contract extension after the Broncos relinquished multiple first-round picks, plus more draft capital, and three players to acquire him from the Seattle Seahawks.
$49M/year is the going rate for a franchise quarterback. The problem is Wilson hasn't delivered consistently franchise-caliber play since he signed the deal.
When a player's performance isn't commensurate with his paycheck, things get out of whack, and it impacts the team in a multitude of ways. Payton was a clear net positive on Wilson's performance in Year 1, but he had to completely re-envision his playbook, simplifying much, and transforming the Broncos into a run-heavy offense that became exceedingly predictable.
A coach shouldn't have to do that for a franchise quarterback making $49M/year. And that's where Payton decided to see what it would look like with Jarrett Stidham at quarterback for the final two games, benching Wilson after the Broncos had been all but eliminated from playoff contention.
Wilson claims the Broncos threatened to bench him during the bye week if he didn't restructure aspects of his contract, including the dates of when his future injury guarantees would kick in. He referred the matter to the NFLPA, Denver's request went nowhere, and he continued as the team's starting quarterback until Week 17.
However, the Broncos were a competitively relevant team in 2023 under the Payton/Wilson ticket, despite the 1-5 start. Payton now knows that he can win with Wilson as his quarterback, even though it takes a firmament of stars aligning to happen, including but not limited to fielding a great run game, a predatory and opportunistic defense, and a clutch special teams unit.
Through two seasons in Denver now, Wilson has proven that he's no longer capable of being the tide that floats a team's armada of ships. He can't carry a team, which means he can't cover roster holes, make up for less-than-ideal circumstances, and elevate players around him beyond their current station.
Wilson now enters his age-36 season and is set to make much more than he's worth, frankly. The Broncos know that, but Wilson and his camp probably haven't come to terms with that reality yet.
The problem here is that Wilson has little incentive to play ball with the Broncos on a restructure because he's guaranteed the $39M for 2024, and he was embarrassed by the first benching of his NFL career. It wasn't handled by Payton and the Broncos with the utmost care and grace, and the blowback could have ramifications on any future negotiations.
Wilson may never feel like he can trust Payton again. And while that's not necessarily a non-starter in a working relationship, it could be enough for Wilson to say, 'Nah. Go ahead and release me and I'll take my talents elsewhere.'"
If the Broncos aren't able to cultivate fruitful negotiations with Wilson, he will be released, and the team will have no choice but to bear down and accept the dead-cap hits. From there, the Broncos will scout the 2024 quarterback class in the draft, and see if the No. 12 overall pick can be parlayed into a franchise guy.
That would represent a reset at quarterback and could set the Payton era back a couple of years in Denver. That's probably not what the Walton/Penners expected when they traded a first- and second-round pick to New Orleans for Payton's rights, and hired him to a multi-year contract that purportedly pays him $18M/year.
Payton had nothing to do with the Wilson acquisition or five-year extension. But he did accept the job in Denver with full knowledge of the lay of the land at quarterback.
If the Broncos ultimately release Wilson, it's going to hurt. The Payton honeymoon, at least from a PR perspective, is over. Without a franchise guy, Payton will have to move heaven and earth to acquire one, come hell or high water.
Stay tuned because the Broncos' draft meetings and, ostensibly, the discussion about Wilson are set to begin next week.
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