There are four games left in the 2023 regular season, and while the Denver Broncos have aspirations of making the playoffs, the franchise and its franchise QB -- Russell Wilson -- are about to reach a fork in the road. The Broncos acquired Russell Wilson in one of the biggest blockbuster trades in NFL history last offseason, and they followed up the trade with Seattle by giving Russell Wilson a massive five-year, $245 million contract extension through the 2028 season.
That contract doesn't even begin until 2024.
There are a lot of moving parts with Russell Wilson's contract going forward, but the true "fork in the road" is on the fifth day of the 2024 league year, just after the start of free agency, when there is a trigger in Wilson's contract for $37 million of his 2025 payout to be fully guaranteed. That means that the Broncos would be on the hook for Wilson in 2025 to the tune of at least $37 million if he is on the roster five days into the 2024 league year.
Although Wilson carries dead cap hits of $85 million in 2024 and $49.6 million in 2025, the Broncos could save a ton of cash by parting ways in the 2024 offseason. This will inevitably lead them to a very difficult discussion, and with an equally difficult decision to make: Does Sean Payton want to commit to two more years of Russell Wilson?
Wilson has undoubtedly had a rebound year under Sean Payton in 2023, but so has the rest of the Denver Broncos organization. Payton was clearly a great hire by the Walton-Penner Ownership Group, and the coaching job he's done in 2023 has been nothing short of outstanding. With that being said, there is still a clear issue with the performance of the Denver Broncos' offense on a consistent basis. The offense has done its part to limit turnovers this season, ranking in the middle of the NFL (17th) in that category, but other areas haven't been encouraging:
- Total yardage: 24th
- Passing: 27th
- Rushing: 13th
- 3rd down %: 21st
- Red zone %: 22nd
To the Broncos' credit, they rank 13th in the NFL in points scored this season, a huge upgrade from last season. The major contributing factors to that are the defense ranking 1st in the NFL in turnovers forced and the Broncos consistently starting with great field position, where they rank 2nd in the league.
I say all of this to paint a picture. Russell Wilson has done his part to make big plays in 2023, and a lot of clutch plays to help get this Denver Broncos team to 7-6 and with legitimate playoff hopes. He's clearly done his part to rehabilitate his value and should be in consideration for NFL Comeback Player of the Year. But is Russell Wilson someone you want to guarantee another $37 million two years down the road?
Which leads me to another very important question: If giving back money is the only way he comes back, will Russell Wilson be a Bronco in 2024?
I can't help but think that the only way Russell Wilson is coming back to Denver is if he ultimately renegotiates his contract as a whole. The Broncos have already given Russ $124 million in fully guaranteed money. That includes his $17 million base salary in 2024. What that means is that the Broncos and Russell Wilson are likely going to have to go to the negotiating table after the 2023 season to talk about that $37 million trigger in 2025. Not only that, but the implication of Wilson having a cap hit of $35.4 million in 2024 and $55.4 million in 2025.
You have to think that Russ sees the value in playing for Sean Payton. You also can't help but think that he would be amenable to renegotiating some of his deal due to how poorly the 2022 season went, and how badly embarrassed the organization was.
At this point, it's just hard to see Sean Payton and the Broncos agreeing to foot the bill for $37 million in fully guaranteed cash a year ahead of time when the results on Russell Wilson in 2023 -- even amidst a pretty "good" year -- have been mixed, at best. What could Wilson do to help the franchise?
Well, he might ultimately have to give back some money. We saw Aaron Rodgers do it for the Jets this past offseason, and while it would be a long shot, it's not unthinkable if the Broncos continue to have success. Wilson is a team-first guy. The Broncos have had to ask star players to give back money in the past (See: Manning, Peyton), so it's not unprecedented.
And it's really not about money, which the ownership group has plenty of, but it's about the commitment. And that arguably makes it the toughest sell. The Broncos would likely need to keep Russell Wilson in 2024, but they'd probably be on a year-to-year commitment at that point as opposed to a long-term marriage. Is Russell Wilson going to be amenable to that?
There are so many questions right now and so many factors to this, but the Broncos have to do what's in the best long-term interests of the team. It's fair to wonder why they would move off of Wilson after a solid season, and where they would replace that production. It's also fair to be frustrated with the offense's lack of a consistent passing attack and the fact that they've needed so many other factors to be perfect in order to have success.
It's going to be really interesting to see what ends up happening in the offseason for the Broncos and Russell Wilson. That $37 million trigger looms large and will tell us a lot about what the team really thought about Wilson's 2023 season as a whole. I'm sure the salary cap gurus and front office can come up with a creative way to make everyone happy if the two sides are motivated to get something done, but one way or the other, I feel confident in saying this:
The only way Russell Wilson comes back to the Denver Broncos in 2024 is with a substantial change in his current contract.
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