Russell Wilson's Disastrous First Year at Denver Could Raise Red Flags in New Era of Offseason QB Movement

TECHNOLOGY
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The NFL has seen an unprecedented volume of veteran quarterbacks switch teams this spring. But after the abject failures of Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson this season, teams may not be as quick to acquire — and pay for — veteran passers as they have recently.

Let’s start with Wilson, who started the 2022 version of a trend that really started when the Los Angeles Rams traded for Matthew Stafford ahead of the 2021 season.

The Broncos sent two first-round picks, two second-round picks, one fifth-round pick, quarterback Drew Lock, tight end Noah Fant and defensive lineman Shelby Harris to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for Wilson and a fourth-round pick. round. That’s a lot on the surface, but Wilson was a nine-time Pro Bowler with a Super Bowl ring to his name early in the season. And it made even more sense given the Broncos’ inability to replace Peyton Manning since his 2015 retirement and his impending sale to the Walton-Penner group. The Broncos then signed Wilson to a five-year, $245 million contract extension with $165 million guaranteed.

Denver wanted to replicate the success Los Angeles had with Stafford in 2021 and run in the Super Bowl. But instead, Wilson went down with career lows in completion rate, touchdown passes and yards per attempt as the Broncos plummeted to the bottom of the AFC West.

Wilson, who missed two games this season with a hamstring injury and a concussion, respectively, now ranks mid-pack among his quarterback colleagues in passing yards per game this season and is tied for 11th in interceptions thrown with nine. That’s not what the Broncos’ new ownership group paid for when they gave him a new contract.

Nathaniel Hackett lost his job as coach of the Broncos on Monday.  Russell Wilson's performance is a big part of why this season has gone south.  (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Nathaniel Hackett lost his job as coach of the Broncos on Monday. Russell Wilson’s performance is a big part of why this season has gone south. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

It’s unclear exactly why Wilson regressed so badly in its 11th season. Maybe it’s the change of scenery – a new city, new teammates and a new offense run by a first-time technical team isn’t the best recipe for success. The Broncos also fired head coach Nathaniel Hackett on Monday, just 11 months into his tenure. Wilson’s success with the Seahawks may also have been a product of his Seattle environment under head coach Pete Carroll, despite the pair’s reported differences of opinion in their later years together. See how well Geno Smith did in his first year as Carroll’s starter.

Regardless of the reason, what happened during Wilson’s 13 games in Denver should be a wake-up call to other teams looking for a quick fix to the quarterback problem.

Could Watson follow in Wilson’s footsteps?

Early returns on Watson’s monstrous deal with the Cleveland Browns and subsequent contract extension aren’t good either.

While Watson is 2-2 as a starter for the Browns this season after missing the first 11 games with a suspension stemming from multiple sexual misconduct allegations, his on-field production is abysmal. He completed 57.7 percent of his passes and averaged just 175.8 yards per game with just two passing touchdowns, one rushing touchdown, and three interceptions.

The Browns offense looks bad with Watson at center. His three scores are the only offensive touchdowns the Browns have managed during his tenure as a starter, and the unit has averaged just 9.75 points per game since Watson’s return. With Jacoby Brissett playing QB for the first 11 games, the Browns’ offense averaged 2.7 touchdowns and 23.9 points per game.

Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb also played worse under Watson. Chubb averaged 94.5 rushing yards and 1.1 rushing touchdowns per game in Weeks 1-12. But with Watson from Weeks 13-16, Chubb only managed 76.3 yards per game and no rushing touchdowns. Cleveland was mathematically eliminated from the playoffs on Saturday after opening a 10-point lead over the New Orleans Saints in a 17-10 loss.

The Browns probably folded most than the Broncos did for Wilson – both in commercial and financial compensation. He cost the Browns three first-round picks, a 2023 third-round pick, and a 2024 fourth-round pick to acquire Watson from the Houston Texans. Cleveland then signed Watson to the biggest fully guaranteed contract ever: five years for $230 million. The deal could yet overhaul how the league does quarterback contracts and has already prompted the NFL Players Association to file a collusion lawsuit against league owners on subsequent contracts.

It’s still early days, and Watson could turn his career around in Cleveland, despite the vast amount of negativity surrounding him and the team’s decision to hand such a controversial player nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. He didn’t play for 700 days after his mutually agreed split with the Texans in 2021 and his subsequent suspension in 2022. But so far, the Browns haven’t seen many indications that he might be the star he was during his time in Houston.

Will QB-starved teams be more cautious?

Despite Wilson’s implosion and Watson’s early woes, there are still plenty of playoff-caliber teams in desperate need of a veteran passer.

There are at least six teams that could be in the market for a new quarterback and won’t be in a position to pick a top contender this spring. This includes the New York Jets, Washington Commanders and Saints. And there are several potential options that could be available as well, like Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo via free agency or Derek Carr and Aaron Rodgers in trade.

It’s an enticing idea, considering the recent success of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with Brady in 2020 and the Rams with Stafford in 2021. Both teams won the Super Bowl the same year they signed a veteran quarterback.

But after the Wilson debacle, maybe the teams will think twice about making any major deals this time around.

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