Broncos coach Sean Payton, making the rounds on Radio Row at the Super Bowl on Friday, said the team will decide on the future of quarterback Russell Wilson “sooner than later,” as an important deadline related to his contract looms.
“We look closely at where the pieces are,” Payton said during an interview with Adam Schein of Mad Dog Sports Radio. “Here are the ‘musts, needs and wants’ and when you asked the question about Russ, that factors in. Is it possible for us to do ‘this, this and this’ or not? I think that decision will be sooner than later. He’ll know sooner than later.”
The comments from Payton echo what he said about Wilson at the end of the season when he promised the decision about when and if to release Wilson would “not be a long, drawn-out process.” Part of that is dictated by a trigger in the contract of the 35-year-old quarterback that would guarantee his $37 million salary for 2025 if he is still on the roster on March 17. If the Broncos cut Wilson, they would be on the hook for $85 million in dead money as the result of future guarantees accelerating onto the 2024 cap. The team could split those charges over two seasons via a post-June 1 release designation.
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Payton, who led the Broncos to an 8-9 record during his first season as their head coach, said the team is in the middle of its free-agent meeting process and will begin its draft meetings Monday, the day after Denver’s AFC West rivals, the Kansas City Chiefs, play the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII. Payton said those meetings will be an important part of the decision-making process as it relates to Wilson, but he pushed back on the notion that Denver had already chosen a path at quarterback.
“Anything that people have said or commented about or heard about, ‘Oh, trades and —’ I can’t even tell you the jersey numbers of these rookie quarterbacks yet,” he said. “We start Monday on it. So how on Earth are we (trading) to (pick) one or going to five or six?’”
The Broncos hold the No. 12 pick in the draft and could be looking for a new quarterback after Payton benched Wilson with two games left last season. The Broncos were 7-8 at the time and coming off a stunning Christmas Eve loss to the New England Patriots that all but extinguished Denver’s hope of reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2015. The Broncos turned to Jarrett Stidham, a free-agent signing ahead of the 2023 season, for the final two games.
Payton said the Broncos are evaluating their quarterback options through a fresh lens.
“When the season ends, we take our puzzle and we flip it upside down and all the pieces get spread out again,” he told Kay Adams of FanDuel TV’s “Up and Adams” show. “We look at the salary cap, where we’re at with our own free agents. We look at who is in the draft, where we pick, how many draft picks we have and we begin this puzzle again. … Our plan, to do this thing the right way, is to really assess the quarterback position. Are we going to be able to find it in the draft? Are we going to find it in free agency? Or is it in the building? That decision is going to happen quicker than later, relative to week.”
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Expanding on the possibility of selecting a quarterback in the draft, Payton told Adams: “If we like one of these guys a lot, I’m unconcerned where people think we should draft them.”
The draft remains a bonafide option for the Broncos to find their next starting quarterback should they move on from Wilson, in part because they are limited financially by other options, such as landing one of the top signal-callers in free agency. The Broncos are $24.1 million over the projected 2024 salary cap, according to Over The Cap. There are numerous paths to easily get under the cap and even create appreciable space with which to add to the roster, but the Broncos, as general manager George Paton reiterated at season’s end, won’t be in a position to get into the mix during the first wave of free agency as they did last season.
Denver also has relatively limited draft capital. The Broncos hold six picks in 2024 — and only one in the first two rounds. They can include a future first-round pick as part of a deal to move up the board for a quarterback, but the team has already traded three first-round picks since 2022 to acquire Wilson and Payton, and it has several holes on the roster that must be addressed.
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No quarterback path will be selected, though, until the Broncos make their decision with Wilson, who has spent his offseason training in Southern California and attended the unveiling of late Los Angeles Lakers great Kobe Bryant’s statue at Crypto.com Arena on Friday. Both sides have said that a door remains open to Wilson returning to the Broncos for a third season in 2024, but that path seems unlikely given how last season ended. After Wilson was benched, he said the Broncos came to him in October with a request that he move back the injury guarantee in his contract. Paton said the negotiation with Wilson’s camp was made “in good faith,” but the quarterback said the conversation included a threat that Wilson would be benched if he didn’t agree to the contract request.
“They came up to me at the beginning of the bye week … and told me that if I didn’t change my contract, my injury guarantee, that I’d be benched for the rest of the year,” Wilson said after his Week 17 benching, which Payton said was made for football reasons. “… I was definitely disappointed about it … I wasn’t going to take away injury guarantees. This game is such a physical game. I’ve played for 12 years and that matters to me.”
Lloyd Howell, the first-year executive director of the NFLPA, confirmed during his Super Bowl availability Thursday that the players union did become involved in the matter at the time the perceived threat was made.
“With that matter … the (NFLPA) is very involved working with our member, as well as their representative, and working to get it to a resolution that’s protecting our member and putting them in the best financial position that was originally agreed to,” Howell said. “That will continue. I’m not going to get into exactly what happened with Russ, but the PA was involved, and we did get to a resolution.”
Wilson, who had a disastrous first season with the Broncos in 2022 following the blockbuster trade that sent five draft picks and three players to the Seattle Seahawks, bounced back from a statistical standpoint last season. He threw for 3,070 yards with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions in his 15 starts, and his 66.4 percent completion rate was his best since 2020. But Denver’s offense scuttled during a stretch of three losses in four games that torpedoed its playoff hopes, and Wilson’s ball-security issues — four interceptions, three fumbles — played a role in that slide.
“Everything and every ounce of our energy at the start of (last season) was, ‘What are the things we feel like (Wilson) does best for us offensively?’” Payton said in his interview with Schein. “Ultimately, we got to a stretch where we felt like we wanted to look at Stidham. Honestly, we felt like we need a spark offensively.”
(Photo: RJ Sangosti / Getty Images)