In case I did not make myself clear on Tuesday, the Deshaun Watson contract is never happening again. In the future, no NFL player will ever receive a fully guaranteed contract. For one thing, Patrick Mahomes is not going to push the Kansas City Chiefs for that type of deal. Two, when the Denver Broncos extended Russell Wilson, they made sure to leave a tiny escape hatch.
By trading for Wilson, and signing him to a five-year, $200-plus million contract extension that does not even go into effect until the 2024 season, the Broncos are on the hook for a ton of money. However, they can save some with a decision that was made on Wednesday. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Broncos will start Jarrett Stidham on Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers.
The Broncos hired Sean Payton following their disaster of a 2022 season. A move that made it clear, Wilson was no longer the star of the organization. Payton blew up at Wilson during their Week 15 loss to the Detroit Lions. Following a Christmas Eve loss to the lowly New England Patriots, in which they were down 20-7 in the fourth quarter, the move could be viewed as Payton wanting to see what the offense looks like under Stidham. Also, if Wilson doesn’t play, he cannot get hurt. As long as he passes his physical in March, they won’t owe him a $37 million injury guarantee.
Should the Broncos decide to cut Wilson during the offseason, which several NFL insiders believe is the inevitable outcome of the decision to bench him, they will pay him $39 million and suffer an $85 million salary cap hit. A hit that can be spread out over two seasons. If the Broncos decide to go that route, at least they will be able to field a team while absorbing all of that dead money.
That is an option that the Browns do not have. If they cut Watson this offseason — remember in 2022 his salary was the veteran minimum — it will result in at least $156 million of dead money. Per ESPN’s Dan Graziano, if they released him after June 1, the cap hit in 2024 and in 2025 would be $110 million. Releasing him before that date would result in $201 million of dead money on the Browns’ books for next season. The salary cap for the 2023 NFL season is just over $224 million. They would have to get the offensive line from The Replacements to field a team in 2024.
The Broncos and Browns traded for their respective quarterbacks within days of each other in 2022. These were both seismic moves made by teams who believed that they were a quarterback away from winning a Super Bowl.
After watching the Browns play with Joe Flacco in recent weeks, it appears that all they needed was decent quarterback play. He has played like himself — big throws along with a lot of interceptions — but the offense is moving more effectively than it ever did with Watson at the helm.
What if the Browns make a deep playoff run, but come up short of the Super Bowl? They have to put Watson behind center next season and hope for the best, because while he is not the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL, he does have the strongest hold on his team’s finances.
The Broncos clearly need more than just a quarterback to get to Super Bowl contention, but they certainly could use better play at the position. The answer to that is not Stidham, but it appears that they no longer believe Wilson is either.
Even though the team would be financially hampered by releasing Wilson, his contract was structured in largely typical NFL fashion. By doing that, the Broncos can bandage their financial wounds and heal. The Browns put themselves in a position in which they have cut their legs off at the knee should they release Watson.
A situation that NFL owners never want to happen to any of them ever again. Because god forbid billionaires be forced to make sound financial decisions without bumpers on the bowling lane.