At QB, 2023 is all about getting Russell Wilson right … but could Broncos look for a better backup, too?
EDITOR’S NOTE: As the offseason gets under way, we’ll be taking a look at each position and where it stacks up.
STATE OF THE ROSTER: QUARTERBACK
It’s not news that the Broncos’ hopes are tied to Russell Wilson in 2023. Nor is it notable that a primary job of a new head coach — and that coach’s offensive staff — will be to work with Wilson to restore him to a level that, at minimum, is within the ballpark of his normal form in Seattle.
Wilson is the Broncos’ starting quarterback this year. And for the Broncos to snap their streak of losing seasons — now at six, which matches their total of sub-.500 campaigns from the previous 41 years — fixing Wilson is the No. 1 task.
Myriad positives will flow from there if the new coaches and Wilson succeed. And the plan for Wilson is central to the coach the Broncos choose.
That’s why perhaps the most intriguing options are Sean Payton, Jim Caldwell and Dan Quinn. The first two are renowned for their work with quarterbacks. Quinn could bring an ex-Seahawks play-caller from Wilson’s salad days aboard, potentially Darrell Bevell — currently Miami’s pass-game coordinator — or Brian Schottenheimer.
For whoever ends up guiding Wilson, the first task is focusing on what Wilson does well NOW. Not areas in which he MIGHT flourish in the future. And not working on a path to allow Wilson to play deep into his 40s.
After all, the Broncos’ first major decision point looms next year. On the fifth day of the 2024 league year, his 2025 salary of $37 million becomes guaranteed if he is on the roster.
So, if Wilson’s play remains at its 2022 form — evidence that his career-worst season was likely a decline, and not a mere dip — the decision point arrives.
Yes, it would cripple the Broncos’ salary cap for two years. Per OvertheCap.com, even a post-June 1 designation gives the Broncos dead-cap figures of $35.4 million in 2024 and $49.6 million in 2025.
But if Wilson’s form lingers through 2023, the Broncos might have no choice but to swallow the painful pill.
That said, the final weeks of the season saw promise from Wilson. After accounting for just 10 touchdowns (passing and rushing combined) in his first 11 starts — a meager 0.9 per game — he nearly tripled that in his final four games, to an average of 2.5 per game (8 TD passes, 2 TD runs).
His passer rating was higher, going from 83.5 to 86.9. Further, it was 96.5 in the two games after Nathaniel Hackett’s dismissal. That begins putting Wilson back in the ballpark of his 11-year Seattle rating of 101.8.
Similar performance over the 2023 season would likely ensure that the Broncos retain Wilson for 2024 and beyond.
But as we saw in three of Wilson’s final four starts of the season, what Wilson does best also exposes him to injury. He suffered a concussion while scrambling for a first down against Kansas City.
And this is why backup quarterback could be high on the Broncos’ priority list.
WHAT OF THE BACKUPS?
Brett Rypien has just three career starts, two of which came last season. He survived a coaching change. He’s been on the roster for five different offensive play-callers.
Rypien is also one of the brightest quarterbacks in the sport. But that hasn’t translated to the field. And even by backup-QB standards, Rypien’s 2022 form was sub-par.
Among 36 backup quarterbacks with at least 20 attempts last year, here’s where Rypien stacked up:
- Passer rating: 63.8, 29th
- On-target percentage: 72.4, 22nd
- Bad-throw percentage (per SportRadar.com): 21.8, T-31
- Yards per attempt: 5.49, 28th
- EPA (expected points added) per play: 0.241, 26th
Obviously, cap space comes into play. But if the Broncos want to invest more in their No. 2 position, upgrades can be found in passers such as Jacoby Brissett, Andy Dalton, Mike White, Gardner Minshew or even ex-Broncos starters like Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater, although recent concussions could work against Bridgewater.
Third-teamer Jarrett Guarantano has a league-minimum cap number and just $5,000 guaranteed. His return depends on the coaches’ preference. If they see enough to want to continue developing him as a reserve, fine.
But if the Broncos take a late-round QB flyer or add one s a priority undrafted free agent, there won’t be many snaps for Guarantano. Twenty years ago, he would have been ideal candidate to play in NFL Europa. Alas, the NFL doesn’t have a formal developmental league anymore. (It should, but that’s another article for another day.)
Effectively, Guarantano’s future could hinge on whether the Broncos like a Day 3-caliber QB more. Using a choice on a passer like BYU’s Jaren Hall or Fresno State’s Jake Haener could nudge Guarantano to the exit.
WILSON: Under contract from 2023-28.
As noted, the first realistic out is 2024, but even that is painful. If he is on the roster after the fifth day of the 2024 league year, a post-June 1 cut in 2025 would see a total dead-money figure of $86.6 million, spread over two years. That would be a greater dead-money figure than if he were cut early in 2023 with a post-June 1 designation ($86 million) because of the $37 million guarantee for 2025 that would kick into the deal.
RYPIEN: Restricted free agent.
Rypien’s projected restricted-free-agent tender is $2.629 million. It would come at the right-of-first refusal tender level. But none of that money is guaranteed.
The Broncos could knock that cost down with a contract that provided a lower cap number with a guarantee — e.g. a 1-year, $1.5-million contract with a $500,000 guarantee. But if the Broncos want better in the market, they might be willing to let Rypien walk. The coaching change will be a factor.
GUARANTANO: Under contract for 2023.
He would become an exclusive-rights free agent in 2024. If cut in 2023, his dead-money figure is $5,000.