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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Russell Wilson to be released by Denver Broncos, team says

Russell Wilson looks on during the Denver Broncos’ game in January against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.  (Getty Images)
By Bob Condotta Seattle Times

A Denver Broncos career that quarterback Russell Wilson hoped would result in multiple Super Bowl victories and an enhanced NFL legacy has ended after 725 days, 11 wins, 19 losses and zero playoff appearances.

As had become expected in recent days, the Broncos on Monday announced they will release Wilson, who was traded to Denver by the Seahawks in March 2022, when the new league year begins March 13.

The Broncos released a statement Monday saying Wilson had been informed of the news.

Denver had to cut Wilson before March 17, when his $37 million base salary for the 2025 season would have become guaranteed.

Wilson’s release had been foreshadowed last Tuesday when coach Sean Payton said at the NFL combine that a decision would come in “the next two weeks.”

Wilson, 35, released a statement shortly after the news broke thanking the Broncos and saying “I am excited for what’s next.”

What’s next is unclear. Wilson will be free to sign with another team after March 13. The Broncos are waiting until March 13 so they can spread out his salary-cap hits over the next two years. Still, they will take on $85 million in dead-cap space over the 2024 and 2025 seasons, the biggest dead-cap hit in NFL history.

Wilson is guaranteed $39 million in base salary and bonuses for 2024, which means he could sign with another team for the league minimum of $1.21 million, an option that could make him more attractive.

Despite the Denver debacle, Wilson is sure to have suitors. Atlanta, which has an uncertain quarterback situation and a new coach in Raheem Morris, has been prominently mentioned, as has New England, which has a new coach in Jerod Mayo. Events over the next few weeks could open up other opportunities.

The Broncos and Payton, meanwhile, will look for another QB to try to get them to the postseason for the first time since Peyton Manning led them to a Super Bowl win following the 2015 season.

There was much celebrating in Denver when the Seahawks-Broncos trade was revealed on March 8, 2022. Wilson was treated as a conquering hero, greeted with wild applause when he threw out the first pitch at a Rockies game or spotted sitting in the front row at a Nuggets playoff contest.

After suffering the first losing season of his career with Seattle in 2021 – a 7-10 mark when he missed three games due to a finger injury – Wilson expected the trade to reinvigorate his career.

“My goal is to play 10 or 12 more years and hopefully win three or four more Super Bowls,” Wilson said when the trade was announced on March 16, 2022. “That’s the plan. That’s the mindset. That’s why I came here, to hopefully be able to finish my career here, and to finish on top as a champion and do it multiple times.”

The trade capped a final Seahawks season in which there was growing tension between Wilson and the organization that had festered for several years, centered in part on Wilson’s belief the team’s offensive scheme wasn’t maximizing his skills and that his career had maybe simply run its course in Seattle.

But things went off the rails from the start in Denver – beginning in Seattle where the Broncos opened the 2022 season with a 17-16 loss to the Seahawks and quarterback Geno Smith, a game marked by some curious decisions by first-year Denver coach Nathaniel Hackett.

Denver actually won its next two games, including an 11-10 victory over San Francisco, but then lost nine of its next 10 games as Wilson struggled to adapt to Hackett’s offense – or maybe it was Hackett struggling to fit his offense around Wilson.

Regardless, Hackett was fired after a stunning 51-14 loss to the Rams on Christmas Day 2022, which opened the door for the hiring of Payton, who won a Super Bowl with the Saints following the 2009 season.

But while each said most of the right things initially, the Payton-Wilson marriage proved a bad fit, with Payton preferring a prototypical quick-throwing pocket passer like he had for years in New Orleans with Drew Brees.

Denver staggered to a 1-5 start in 2023 before embarking on a five-game winning streak that momentarily appeared as the moment when Wilson’s Broncos’ career finally got on the right track – he had an 8-to-0 touchdown-to-interception rate in that stretch.

But it was mostly a stingy defense that got credit for the winning streak, and when Denver lost three of its next four to turn its playoff odds bleak the team made the stunning decision to bench Wilson for the final two games of the season. Wilson’s last Denver game turned out to be a 26-23 loss to New England on Christmas Eve.

After the benching, Wilson revealed the team had come to him at midseason and asked him to revise his contract to remove an injury guarantee on his $37 million base salary for 2025.

The base salary would have become guaranteed on March 18 if Wilson were still on the roster. But it would have become immediately guaranteed had Wilson suffered an injury that did not allow him to pass a physical.

Wilson refused, further straining relations between him and the team. He played seven more games before the team finally decided not to risk it anymore and benched him.

His final Denver numbers – 589-930 passing for 6,594 yards, 42 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.

Almost all of his stats paled in comparison to his Seattle averages.

Notably, he had a 90.9 passer rating in Denver compared to 101.8 in 10 years in Seattle. He also averaged 7.1 yards per attempt in Denver compared to 7.8 in Seattle.

And while Wilson hoped his move to Denver would burnish his legacy – he was said to have chafed that Seattle had not advanced past the divisional round of the playoffs in his last seven seasons after advancing to the Super Bowl in his second and third seasons – his legacy instead is in the failed promise of the last two seasons and the holes left in Denver’s roster.

The Broncos traded three players – tight end Noah Fant, quarterback Drew Lock and defensive lineman Shelby Harris – to Seattle for Wilson as well as five draft picks, including first-rounders in 2022 and 2023.

Fant and Lock can be free agents next week leaving their Seattle futures unclear, and Harris was released last March and played last season in Cleveland and can also now be a free agent.

But the draft picks could help sustain Seattle’s roster for years.

The Seahawks used a trade in 2022 to turn one of the picks into two selections.

Here are the players from the draft picks Seattle got for Wilson and their current status.

Left tackle Charles Cross: Cross was taken in 2022 with the ninth overall pick and has started 31 games in two years and appears on track to be the team’s starting LT for years to come.

Outside linebacker Boye Mafe: Mafe, taken with the 40th overall pick in 2022, had a breakout second season in 2023 leading the Seahawks with nine sacks.

Outside linebacker Tyreke Smith: Smith, whose pick was acquired in a trade of picks with Kansas City and was taken 145th overall in 2022, played in only one game over part of two years with Seattle, missing all of his rookie year with a hip injury. He was signed by Arizona off Seattle’s practice squad last December and played in two games for the Cardinals and remains under contract with the team for 2024.

Wide receiver Dareke Young: Young, taken at 233 with another pick acquired in the KC trade, has played in 19 games in two seasons serving as a core special teamer and reserve receiver, making two catches for 24 yards, both in 2022.

Cornerback Devon Witherspoon: With the first of two picks Seattle got in the 2023 draft as part of the Wilson deal, the Seahawks took Witherspoon fifth overall. Witherspoon went on to turn in one of the better rookie seasons by a defender in franchise history, starting 14 games and finishing fifth in the NFL in passes defensed with 16.

Outside linebacker Derick Hall: With the second 2023 pick received for Wilson, Seattle took Hall 37th overall out of Auburn. Hall had 30 tackles and five quarterback hits playing in a reserve role in the team’s edge rush rotation.

As for Denver, the Broncos also received a 2022 fourth-round pick in the deal. They used it on defensive end Eyioma Uwazurike out of Iowa State. He made 17 tackles in eight games as a rookie but was then suspended indefinitely last July for gambling on NFL games and did not play in 2023.