NFL News & Analysis

What can the Denver Broncos do with Russell Wilson's contract?

Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson (3) looks to pass in the second quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

• Russell Wilson's full contract: Wilson is under contract for seven more years — through his age 40 season — for $296 million in total.

• Poor play in 2022: Through Week 13, Wilson is putting up career lows in a bevy of metrics, and the Broncos are just 3-9.

• Potential outs for the Broncos: It's essentially not realistic to move on from Wilson before 2024, and any trade would likely require Denver to include draft picks just to offload his massive contract.

Estimated Reading Time: 5 mins

It’s unfathomable that just nine months removed from the blockbuster trade that sent Russell Wilson from the Seattle Seahawks to Denver, we’re already contemplating exit strategies for the Broncos. Wilson had two years and $51 million remaining on his 2019 extension signed with the Seahawks and tacked on five more years to the tune of $245 million — with the $49 million per year average second only to Aaron Rodgers. All told, Wilson is under contract for seven more years — through his age 40 season — for $296 million in total.

Through Week 13, Wilson is putting up career lows in the following metrics: 

Category 2022 through Week 13 Career average before 2022
PFF passing grade 65.7 92.6
Yards per attempt 7.2 7.8
Completion % 60.1% 65.0%
Big-time throw rate 4.2% 6.7%
Batted passes thrown 12 6.1

Wilson has also taken 37 sacks on 415 dropbacks, with the resulting 8.9% sack rate the second-highest of his career. No matter how you slice it, Wilson is having the worst season of his otherwise remarkable 10-year tenure among the best of the NFL.

As everyone should know by now, it’s never just about overall contract value, and Wilson along with agent Mark Rodgers didn’t just do well on the total value. The $124 million fully guaranteed at signing secured in Wilson’s extension was well ahead of Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray’s $103 million from earlier this offseason, also on a five-year extension. Wilson received a $50 million signing bonus plus a $20 million option in 2023 and a $22 million option in 2024 — all of which were fully guaranteed at signing.

The option bonus structure is relevant for those interested in Green Bay’s situation with Rodgers, as well, since they are set up similarly. Wilson technically has a $28 million salary in 2023 and a $39 million salary in 2024, as things stand. If Denver were to decline the 2023 option, instead of the $20 million prorating over five years on the salary cap — $4 million each from 2023-27 — it would all stay in 2023. The same is true with the 2024 option. However, with both already fully guaranteed, pushing some cap into the future may be viewed as the best option. Here is the contract breakdown through the remaining years, with both options exercised.

Year Base salary Signing bonus 2023 option bonus  2024 option bonus Cap hit Dead cap if cut
2023 $8M $10M $4M $22M $107M
2024 $17M $10M $4M $4.4M $35.4M $85M
2025 $37M $10M $4M $4.4M $55.4M $49.6M
2026 $40M $10M $4M $4.4M $58.4M $31.2M
2027 $45M $4M $4.4M $53.4M $12.8M
2028 $50M $4.4M $54.4M $4.4M

The NFL record for dead cap on a single player was set this past offseason when the Atlanta Falcons took on $40.525 million in dead cap by trading quarterback Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts, and as you can see above, Wilson’s total dead cap left behind in Denver would be twice that amount not only in 2023, but also in 2024. If the Broncos miraculously found a trade partner before exercising his 2023 option, they could get out with just $40 million in dead cap, but that scenario seems extremely unlikely. 

With that said on the 2023 scenario, the 2024 offseason is where the decision window truly opens. The Broncos will presumably have a new head coach and convince themselves a reset there could jumpstart one of the league’s worst offenses from this season. If that’s not the case, early in 2024 there’s a trigger date that will spur action. On the fifth day of the 2024 league year (around March 20), if Wilson is on the Broncos roster, his $37 million 2025 salary will also become fully guaranteed.

This is where the Post-June 1 designation comes into play. Each offseason, every team is allowed to designate two players as Post-June 1 releases for cap treatment purposes, but with the player not being considered on the roster as of the day the release is made. Here, Denver can spread out Wilson’s dead cap over 2024 and 2025 without letting his $37 million 2025 salary become fully guaranteed. Below is how that would look:

Dead cap 2024 2025
Pre-June 1 release, 2024 $85M
Post-June 1 release, 2024 $35.4M $49.6M

With the Post-June 1 designation above, Denver takes on $85 million in total dead cap, which they could spread over 2024 and 2025 to make it more palatable. Denver will have also spent $124 million plus two first-round picks, a second-round pick and three players for two seasons of Wilson, one of which we know will end up way outside the playoff picture. This would undoubtedly go down as one of the worst trades in NFL history, though it would be even worse if the sunk cost convinced Denver to allow $35 million more to become fully guaranteed for 2025.

Wilson could then sign elsewhere in 2024 and Denver would be able to offset his earnings with the new club against his 2024 salary, but odds are the recoupment would be fairly minimal. The reason the 2024 trigger date for the 2025 salary is so paramount is that the total dead cap in 2025 would actually be larger than 2024, at $86.6 million.

Long answer short, the Broncos are in a completely unwinnable position as it stands. It's essentially not realistic to move on from Wilson before 2024. Any trade would likely require Denver to include draft picks just to offload Wilson’s massive contract, as a new team wouldn’t inherit that much of a cap or cash discount so as to make the risk worth it. Perhaps Denver would be willing to go to these extreme measures just to start over at quarterback, and they were very wise to recoup a first-round pick from the Miami Dolphins for edge defender Bradley Chubb, but odds are Wilson will get at least one more season to right the ship. 

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