Russell Wilson contract, explained: Why veteran QB may sign for league minimum after Broncos release

The Broncos thought they solved their long-term issues at quarterback during the 2022 NFL offseason when they traded for Russell Wilson.

Instead, it turned out to be a disastrous acquisition.

Wilson struggled in his first season with the Broncos, posting a 4-11 record and completing a career-worst 60.4 percent of his passes in Nathaniel Hackett’s offense. He took a league-high 55 sacks, and his downturn helped make Hackett a one-and-done coach in Denver.

Wilson reversed his sharp decline in 2023 under the experienced Sean Payton, leading the Broncos to a 7-8 record. He posted respectable numbers, completing 66.4 percent of his passes for 3,070 yards, 26 touchdowns, and eight interceptions, but the Broncos still were inconsistent on offense.

As a result, Wilson lost his starting job. The Broncos benched him in favor of Jarrett Stidham late in the season.

Now, the marriage between Wilson and the Broncos is over. Denver will release the veteran quarterback after the new NFL league year begins on March 13, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

Why? It’s all about the money, as the Broncos can prevent $37 million of Wilson’s 2025 salary from becoming guaranteed by releasing him before March 17, 2024.

However, releasing Wilson may give whichever team signs him a leg up on the competition, as the veteran quarterback could end up being one of the most team-friendly quarterback acquisitions of the 2024 NFL offseason.

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Russell Wilson contract

When the Broncos traded for Wilson in 2022, they immediately inked him to a five-year, $242.5 million extension to make him one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL. He was guaranteed $124 million at signing, per Spotrac.com.

Below is a full breakdown of Wilson’s deal, which was, incredibly, set to begin during the 2024 NFL season.

Year Base salary Bonuses Cap hit Dead cap
2024 $17,000,000 $18,400,000 $35,400,000 $85,000,000
2025 $37,000,000 $18,400,000 $55,400,000 $49,600,000
2026 $40,000,000 $18,400,000 $58,400,000 $31,200,000
2027 $44,000,000 $9,400,000 $53,400,000 $12,800,000
2028 $50,000,000 $4,400,000 $54,400,000 $4,400,000

The Broncos will incur a dead-cap hit of $85 million by releasing Wilson in 2024. That is nearly double the previous record for a dead-cap hit, the $40.525 million the Colts sustained for cutting Matt Ryan in 2023.

That said, the Broncos may release Wilson with a post-June 1 designation, which means his dead cap hit will be spread over two years. If that happens, the Broncos would incur a dead cap hit of $35.4 million in 2024 (minus offsets from Wilson signing elsewhere) and a $49.6 million dead cap hit in 2025, per NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero.

Either way, the Broncos will be eating a lot of money; and if they designate him a post-June 1 release, the 2025 dead cap hit would be historic.

In retrospect, Denver certainly made the wrong move in signing Wilson to a lucrative extension before he played a down with the team. That’s especially true considering that he had two years left on his original contract after his acquisition from Seattle.

Even so, the Broncos appear happy to take on the burden of parting with Wilson. It may hamstring them financially short term, but the move will give Payton and Co. a chance for a fresh start at the most important position on the field.

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How much will Russell Wilson make in 2024?

Even after the Broncos release Wilson, they will still owe him $39 million for the 2024 NFL season. That comes thanks to his fully guaranteed $17 million base salary and $22 million signing bonus, per Spotrac.

It will be difficult for Wilson to make more than that $39 million this season even if he signs a deal with another club. His deal with the Broncos contains offset language, meaning that if Wilson signs with another team, Denver would subtract Wilson’s earnings from his new team from what it owes him.

For example, if Wilson were to sign a fully guaranteed deal worth $10 million in 2024, the Broncos would owe him just $29 million for the season.

The only way for Wilson to make more than $39 million in 2024 is if a team signed him to a deal worth more than that sum. That is highly unlikely to happen given his recent decline and age (36 in November).

That’s one of the reasons that ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler believes Wilson could accept a team-friendly deal in 2024, one that could be worth only the league minimum.

“Everybody I’ve talked to around the league expects the Denver Broncos at some point around the new league year in the next few weeks to rip the band-aid off and release Russell Wilson even though they owe him $39 million in guaranteed money,” Fowler said Sunday on SportsCenter, per Bleacher Report. “But they can start new, he can go sign somewhere else.”

The feeling is he’ll sign for considerably less, maybe even the league minimum, because he’s got all that money in hand guaranteed. And so, he’s going to have options. The feeling I get from talking to teams and scouts is that he’s still an NFL starter, there will be a job somewhere for him.

If Wilson is keen on taking close to the league minimum in 2024, whether it’s on a one-year deal or as part of a uniquely structured multi-year pact, then there should be plenty of interest in him league-wide. He could be viewed as a stopgap starter or a potential reclamation project in the right environment.

MORE: Russell Wilson wants to win two more Super Bowls in five years

What is the NFL veteran minimum salary in 2024?

The veteran minimum is set at $915,000 for the 2024 NFL season, per Spotrac.com. Comparatively, the rookie minimum is worth $715,000.

However, Wilson has 10-plus seasons of NFL experience. As such, his minimum salary is set at $1.21 million in 2024. So, if he accepts a deal worth that much, the Broncos would be on the hook for roughly $37.79 million.

Below is a look at the NFL minimum wage scale, per Spotrac:

Years of experience Minimum salary
0 $715,000
1 $915,000
2 $985,000
3 $1,055,000
4 $1,125,000
5 $1,125,000
6 $1,125,000
7 $1,210,000
8 $1,210,000
9 $1,210,000
10 $1,210,000

All that’s to say that Wilson could be a bargain for the right team, and it’s largely thanks to the fact that he is an albatross for the Broncos.

MORE: Revisiting the Russell Wilson trade between the Broncos and Seahawks

Russell Wilson landing spots

It helps Wilson’s cause that several teams on the brink of wild-card contention could use veteran quarterback help. Below is a run-down of his top potential landing spots.

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons went 7-10 last season but were in the thick of the NFC South race despite receiving poor quarterback play from Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke. Wilson may not be a massive upgrade, but playing behind a great offensive line and with weapons like Bijan Robinson, Drake London, and Kyle Pitts could help reverse his regression and make him a stable starter.

Las Vegas Raiders

The Raiders have the 13th pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, so they aren’t guaranteed to get a shot at a quarterback they like. Even if they do, they are likely to release Jimmy Garoppolo, so that would leave Brian Hoyer and second-year-pro Aidan O’Connell as the only other quarterbacks on the roster.

Wilson would provide the Raiders with an experienced stopgap starter or a bridge to a guy like Bo Nix, JJ McCarthy, or Michael Penix. Antonio Pierce has coached against Wilson for two seasons, so if likes what he has seen, he could be willing to chase Wilson.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers tried Kenny Pickett, Mitch Trubisky, and Mason Rudolph at quarterback last season. Rudolph was the best of the bunch but will be a free agent. Even if he returns, Pittsburgh needs to add someone to challenge Pickett as the 2022 first-round pick attempts to develop into a starter.

Perhaps Justin Fields will be the Steelers’ top target. Still, Wilson could be an experienced consolation prize who may be able to win enough games in Mike Tomlin’s system to keep the Steelers competitive.

Minnesota Vikings

Kirk Cousins and Joshua Dobbs are both free agents in 2024. They also happen to be Minnesota’s best starters from the 2023 NFL season. The Vikings need to add quarterback talent, so even if they plan to draft a signal-caller, they will need a veteran to serve as a bridge or mentor for a rookie.

Wilson may not be as good as Cousins, but if the 35-year-old signal-caller leaves Minnesota, then Wilson would be a decent replacement. Similar to the Raiders’ situation, Wilson could hold the fort while Kevin O’Connell develops a guy like McCarthy, Nix, or Penix in the background.

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