NFL News & Analysis

What's wrong with Russell Wilson? Sources weigh in on Broncos QB's struggles

Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson (3) runs off the field after the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

  • Russell Wilson’s struggles: The Denver Broncos QB is one of PFF’s lowest-graded passers this season.
  • Executive’s take: Wilson’s shortcomings are highlighted by the Broncos’ lack of chemistry.
  • Scout’s take: Wilson’s issues are fixable, though they might not come in time to save jobs in Denver.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

The Denver Broncos have a nearly quarter-billion-dollar problem on their hands.

Quarterback Russell Wilson was signed to a five-year, $245 million contract extension this offseason, and through five weeks, he looks like a shell of his former Super Bowl-winning, perennial Pro Bowl-selection self.

After laboring through a 12-9 overtime loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Thursday night that earned him a 40.9 overall PFF grade and just a 38.5 passing grade, Wilson now ranks 26th among 32 qualified quarterbacks with a 59.7 PFF grade through five weeks. He’s played just one game that earned him a 65.0-plus PFF grade.

Wilson fell off slightly last season with a 73.9 PFF grade after rushing back from a broken finger suffered in Week 5. From 2012 to 2020, however, Wilson was PFF’s fifth-highest-graded quarterback behind Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes, playing at an elite level with a 94.5 overall PFF grade.

As one AFC scout pointed out, the 33-year-old QB is now playing with new receivers and under a first-time head coach. The Broncos also have lost their starting running back and a top wide receiver to knee injuries in Javonte Williams and Tim Patrick. And Wilson’s left tackle, Garett Bolles, will undergo season-ending surgery after breaking his leg Thursday, exacerbating the team’s current issues.

“It takes time,” the scout said. “You just don’t roll out there and play ball and think you’re gonna win the Super Bowl. I have no idea why people were hyping that so fast.”

That scout believes Wilson’s issues are fixable, though they might not come this season given the offense's current state.

The Broncos acquired Wilson from the Seattle Seahawks this offseason, giving up two first-round picks, two second-round picks, a fifth-round pick, QB Drew Lock, defensive lineman Shelby Harris and tight end Noah Fant. The Broncos also received a fourth-round pick in return.

Wilson’s replacement in Seattle, quarterback Geno Smith, is currently PFF’s highest-graded quarterback with an 84.5 mark. Smith is PFF’s second-highest graded passer with an 81.5 passing grade and has recorded a 77.3% completion rate.

The AFC scout, along with several other people around the NFL, is wondering how long things will last with head coach Nathaniel Hackett if the Broncos can’t rebound. Hackett passed Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule after Thursday night's game as the new favorite to be the first head coach fired. There has been less speculation about general manager George Paton’s future, but some have still wondered how patient new ownership will be with a head coach and general manager that it didn’t personally hire.

The Walton-Penner Family Ownership Group, heirs to the Walmart fortune, agreed to purchase the Broncos for $4.65 billion in June of 2022. They were formally introduced as the new ownership group in August.

The Broncos, under previous ownership, hired Paton as general manager in January 2021. Hackett was hired as head coach in January 2022. The Broncos agreed to trade for Wilson back in March of 2022 before the Walton-Penner family reached an agreement to purchase the team. However, he was signed to his $245 million contract in September after the new ownership group was already introduced.

Simply based on the timeline and money invested, people around the NFL have argued that Wilson has more power within the organization than his superiors. If the Broncos released Wilson this season, they would be left with $124 million in dead money. Denver would incur $107 million in dead money if he were released in 2023 and $85 million if he were released in 2024. The Broncos can't save cap space by releasing Wilson until 2025 when he no longer has a guaranteed salary.

A personnel executive was less confident that things are fixable in Denver.

“I just think the chemistry is not there,” he said. “And it highlights his shortcomings as a QB. You have to have chemistry from top to bottom or you won't succeed (with Wilson).”

Wilson’s mobility has always allowed him to create plays. And while he's still one of the NFL’s most athletic quarterbacks, his mobility has and will continue to diminish as he gets older.

Wilson’s big-time throw rate is down to 3.8% this season from a 6.8% career mark. His turnover-worthy play rate has slightly increased to 2.8% from a 2.7%. career mark. He’s PFF’s 29th-highest graded passer using play action, and he’s been abysmal under pressure, ranking 26th with a 39.6 grade. Prior to Thursday night’s game, the Broncos' offensive line ranked 10th in Sam Monson’s offensive line rankings. Typically one of PFF’s highest-graded deep passers, Wilson ranks 23rd with a 65.7 mark this season.

One AFC analytics executive also theorized that Wilson needs more time building chemistry with his receivers and mastering the offense.

“A lot of his tendencies are similar to last year but there are a lot more drops,” he said.

Wilson's drop rate last season was 4.8%. It's more than doubled this year to 11.8%. So, while Wilson's raw completion percentage is just 59.8%, his adjusted completion rate is 71.3%. Wilson's career drop rate is 6.9%.

“Just seems he’s lost some of his confidence and is starting to play very cautious and second-guessing things,” a former teammate of Wilson's said. “Just has to get back in a rhythm. I’m sure a new team and coach take time to get adjusted.”

After Wilson was traded, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, general manager John Schneider and owner Jody Allen all mentioned in statements that the QB wanted the change that ultimately precipitated his move. Wilson said afterward that he didn’t initiate the trade and that it was “mutual.” Sources indicated before Wilson was traded that the Seahawks would not be opposed to moving their QB.

The team’s message was effective, however. Wilson was booed by Seahawks fans in Week 1 when Seattle beat the Broncos 17-16 on Monday Night Football.

Through five games, the 2-2 Seahawks are looking wise for trading Wilson at the top of his market, and while it’s certainly premature to crown Smith, 31, as one of the NFL’s ascending quarterbacks, he has looked good in his extended starting time.

As for Wilson, the Broncos have no choice but to ride it out. If he doesn't improve, no one will trade for him on his current salary, and releasing him would only subtract cap space.

But as the AFC scout said, “It's Week 5. The season is just starting.” There's still plenty of time for the Broncos QB to figure it out.

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