Something that we began discussing about 2 months after the ink was dry on Russell Wilson’s contract extension with the Broncos in 2022 looks to be a reality as the Broncos are reportedly benching Wilson for the final two games of the year.
At the heart of the issue are future guarantees for Wilson that would become fully guaranteed on the 5th day of the 2024 league year. Wilson’s $37 million salary for 2025 is currently guaranteed for injury. Any type of injury that would prevent Wilson from passing a physical before that time (essentially a 10 to 11 week recovery if it occurred now) would make Wilson a lock to have his injury guarantee become a full guarantee. Wilson also has $4 million in guarantees that are tied to the 2026 season, but those do not vest until 2025.
Benching Wilson gives the Broncos the path to release Wilson in 2024 and protect themselves from those guarantees kicking in. This is not unprecedented in the NFL. Years ago the Commanders put QB Robert Griffin III on the bench fearing that his 5th year option salary would become fully guaranteed due to an injury. The 49ers did something similar with QB Colin Kaepernick until he waived the future injury protection in order to play. Last season the Raiders put QB Derek Carr on the bench to prevent $40.4 million from being locked in due to injury.
Wilson has not been bad this season and probably somewhere around league average (our OTC valuation ranks him 13th at QB though that ranking is helped by some injuries around the NFL), but I think it is fair to say that he has declined from his peak years in Seattle and it is unlikely that he will somehow get better when he is 36 next year let alone when he is 37 in 2025.
Wilson’s $39 million salary is already guaranteed for 2024 and maybe they would have rolled the dice with him again if it was just one year at play, but I don’t think the team can justify the value for Wilson at these contract numbers for the next two seasons and that is what Denver locks into if he is on the roster next season.
The dead money associated with the contract is huge. The Broncos should owe $85 million on the cap to release him. His contract is a little more complex due to an option next year, but I believe a clean June 1 break would lead to a $53 million salary cap charge in 2024 and $32 million salary cap charge in 2025. They would also receive a credit for any salary Wilson were to earn on another team. This more or less just flips the cap charges for Wilson as they stand now ($35M in 24 and $55M in 25) and it should be manageable for the team.
While those numbers seem gigantic it is important to know that this would be the last $85M they owe the cap for Wilson. If they keep Wilson they would use $122M over the next three years including that extra $37M in cash. I don’t believe his play would warrant that if the team can escape it.
Nothing of course prevents the two sides from coming to an agreement on a restructured contract that takes out the future salary protection, lowers the salary down closer to the Geno Smith range, etc… which would give Wilson an opportunity to play in 2024 (and maybe the last two games of 2023) with Denver. However, at the moment it seems very clear that the Broncos intention is to release Wilson next season. Due to the guarantee structure Wilson can not be released until the start of the new league year so this is something that will linger.
If you want a more in depth analysis of the various situations you can check out my segment from the podcast a few months ago that went in detail on all the different options the Broncos may have with Wilson next year.