Nathaniel Hackett didn't last a season as head coach of the Denver Broncos, as he was relieved of command 15 games into the 2022 season. While Broncos general manager George Paton (no, not that one) moved swiftly to eliminate one problem, he maybe have simply been deflecting. The 52-year-old GM is guilty of consummating what looks like one of the worst trades in NFL history.
Following Peyton Manning's retirement in 2015, the Broncos failed to find a replacement under center. Denver proved it couldn't draft and develop its next signal-caller, so Paton went all-in on the trade market. The Broncos saw Russell Wilson's discontent with the Seattle Seahawks and pounced, mortgaging the future to import a nine-time Pro Bowler.
In exchange for Wilson and a 2022 fourth-round draft pick (used to select defensive tackle Eyioma Uwazurike), the Broncos sent Seattle first-round picks in 2022 and 2023, second-round picks in 2022 and 2023, a fifth-rounder in 2022, plus quarterback Drew Lock, tight end Noah Fant and defensive end Shelby Harris. For the record, with the picks acquired in the 2022 draft, the Seahawks selected tackle Charles Cross (No. 9), edge Boye Mafe (No. 40) and traded the fifth-rounder (No. 145) to the Kansas City Chiefs, moved down and selected defensive end Tyreke Smith (No. 158) and receiver Dareke Young (No. 233).
Seattle has to be thrilled with that deal. Harris starts at defensive end, Cross is the team's starting left tackle -- and looks like a good one -- Mafe is a backup with upside, Young is a special teams contributor and Smith shows promise but has missed the entire season with a hip injury. But hey, to get an established franchise quarterback the Broncos had to give up a lot. Unfortunately, it looks like they got fleeced.
The trade was completed on March 16, 2022 and on September 1, Denver handed Wilson a massive five-year, $245 million contract extension. It came with a $50 million signing bonus, $124 million guaranteed at signing and $161 million in total guarantees. It tied him to the franchise through 2028. It was an absolute monster of a contract and I guarantee Paton wishes it had never happened.
In 14 games with the Broncos, Wilson has been flat-out awful. He has completed a career-worst 60.8 percent of his passes for 3,241 yards and a career-worst 7.1 yards per attempt. He has only 13 touchdowns against 10 interceptions and both his quarterback rating (82.5) and QBR (35.6) would be career-worst marks. By a lot. Wilson's QBR currently ranks 27th among the 31 NFL quarterbacks who qualify and his passer rating ranks 28th. He, and the entire Broncos' offense, has been terrible.
Meanwhile, journeyman Geno Smith has been excellent for Seattle. He currently sits sixth in QBR (62.6) and fifth in passer rating (102.9). He has thrown for 4,069 yards while completing 70.2 percent of his passer for 7.5 yards per attempt and racking up 29 touchdowns against nine interceptions. The 32-year-old Smith was selected to his first Pro Bowl two weeks ago. He's making $51 million less than Wilson on the season.
Wilson just looks terrible. There's no zip on his passes, he's not moving as well and his decision-making has been awful. He's still as unintentionally hilarious as always, but the good parts of his game are completely gone. It appears that, at 34, he has lost it.
As far as Wilson's contract goes, the Broncos are screwed. If they cut him after this season they would take a $107 million dead-cap hit. After 2023, that number is $85 million, and following the 2024 season it is $49.6 million. There is a potential out in the deal before the 2026 season but Denver would still have to absorb a $31.2 million dead-cap hit to dump him. Wilson will be 38 at that point. Meanwhile, Wilson's cap number will continue to rise. It will be $22 million in 2023, $35.4 million in 2024, $55.4 million in 2025 and will peak at $58.4 million in 2026. That will severely hamper the moves the Broncos can make to improve. Especially since they gave up their top two picks in 2023.
The Wilson trade will continue to sting during the aforementioned 2023 NFL Draft. Denver is currently 4-12 and would own the third pick in a loaded draft. Instead, that pick will go to Seattle, as will the 35th pick.
It appears the Broncos mortgaged their future to acquire a franchise quarterback who is done being a franchise quarterback. Given the contract they handed him, there is no way out of a deal that looks worse by the day.
Unless something dramatic changes, this looks like the worst trade the NFL has seen since October 12, 1989. That was the date of the infamous Herschel Walker swap In that deal, the Minnesota Vikings sent four players and eight draft picks to the Dallas Cowboys in exchange for Walker and four picks -- the San Diego Chargers were also involved, receiving running back Darrin Nelson in exchange for a fifth-rounder going to the Vikings. Minnesota surrendered first-round picks in 1990, 1991 and 1992, second-rounder in 1990, 1991 and 1992, a sixth-rounder in 1990 and a third-rounder in 1992.
The Cowboys used the picks from that deal to build their dynasty of the 90s, while Walker played three lackluster seasons in Minnesota, rushing for 2,264 yards and 20 touchdowns but never reaching a Pro Bowl. The trade set the Vikings back years and they still haven't reached a Super Bowl since consummating it.
With the Wilson trade and contract, the Broncos are staring down the barrel of a similar failure.