The Denver Broncos’ win-lose on Sunday only served to further shine a light on what can fairly be called the worst trade in NFL history, certainly so from a financial standpoint.
Although Denver beat the Los Angeles Chargers 16-9 on Sunday without quarterback Russell Wilson, the Broncos were officially eliminated from the NFL playoffs when Kansas City and Pittsburgh won in the same afternoon time slot.
Wilson’s $242.5 million contract was the driver in his removal from the lineup, and his offseason departure — he has said he expected to be released — will leave the Broncos with nothing to show for a 2022 trade in which they acquired Wilson for five draft picks including two No. 1s and three players from Seattle.
The Broncos complicated their financial investment when they signed Wilson to a five-year, $242.5 million extension before he had thrown a pass for them. That deal overrode the final two years of the existing four-year, $140 million contract Wilson signed with Seattle before the 2019 season.
The most comparable lopsided deal in the NFL came when Dallas traded running back Herschel Walker to Minnesota in a three-team trade in October of 1989 that included 18 players and draft picks.
Others Have Made Big Trades
The Cowboys used the move to add Emmitt Smith and Darren Woodson, among others, as they became a contender. At the same time, the move cost Minnesota only $2.25 million, the remainder of the five-year, $5 million contract signed with Dallas in 1986. Nowhere near the Broncos’ loss.
New Orleans coach Mike Ditka traded eight draft picks to move up in the 1999 draft to take running back Ricky Williams with the fifth pick, although that did not involve any other compensation.
But money talks, and the Broncos decided this week it was in their best interests to listen.
Wilson was benched after starting the first 15 games this season, and while coach Sean Payton took pains to say the move to backup Jarrett Stidham last Sunday was a football decision motivated by a desire to win, money was at the root.
“I understand the economics here,” Payton said when the change was announced last week.
When Wilson declined to remove an injury protection clause from his contract when Denver came to him following a 24-9 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on Oct. 29, the only surprise was how long it took Payton and the Broncos to make the their move.
Wilson is guaranteed to make $39 million in 2024, and his contract includes an injury clause that fully guarantees his $37 million salary in 2025 if he passes a physical in March. By benching Wilson, the Broncos effectively took the injury guarantee out of play.
Wilson’s 2025 salary is guaranteed if he is on the roster on the fifth day of the 2024 league season, which begins March 13. It is clear that will not be in Denver. The Broncos have done nothing to dispute Wilson’s assertion that he will be released in the offseason, and he is not expected to play in the season finale against Las Vegas on Sunday.
Timing Is The Thing
If Wilson is released before March 17, 2024, the Broncos will be on the hook for $39 million cash and $85 million in dead cap space for 2025. If they wait to release him after June 1, the dead cap hit drops to 49.6 million. Either way, the financial loss absorbed will be the largest in league history.
The talent drain is something else. Seattle turned the Broncos’ first-round draft picks in 2022 and 2023 into starting offensive left tackle Charles Cross and starting cornerback Devon Witherspoon, respectively. And 2022 second-rounder Boye Mafe, also part of the package, is a starter.
The Broncos’ move to relieve Wilson is not unprecedented. Las Vegas benched quarterback Derek Carr for the final two games last season, ironically turning to Stidham.
Carr had an injury clause that guaranteed he would receive his $32 million 2023 salary plus $7.4 million of his 2024 salary if he were injured. Carr signed a four-year, $150 million contract with New Orleans before the 2023 season that includes injury guarantees.
Denver has had a hard time finding a reliable quarterback since Peyton Manning retired after leading them to the 2015 Super Bowl, the last time the Broncos made the playoffs.
Quarterbacks Brock Osweiler, Trevor Semien, Paxton Lynch, Case Keener, Joe Flacco, Drew Lock, Brandon Allen, Jeff Driskel, Brett Rypien and Teddy Bridgewater have started at least one game since.
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