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Ignore the Russell Wilson noise with the Broncos. Focus on Sean Payton’s next move at QB

February 28th, 2024

INDIANAPOLIS — For all intents and purposes, the departure of Russell Wilson is a foregone conclusion inside the Denver Broncos. The only holdup is when head coach Sean Payton makes the decision to part company with his veteran quarterback.

That’s currently circulating around the NFL’s annual scouting combine in Indianapolis, where the initial wave of curiosity inside the league’s personnel community is less focused on whether Wilson will actually be jettisoned by the Broncos, and more in wonderment about why Payton — who is effectively running the entire show with the Broncos — hasn’t already made the decision to part company.

The issue at hand: In the early stages of this combine, it appears the Broncos have not yet fleshed out a plan for precisely how they intend to address the quarterback spot in the wake of Wilson’s departure. If anything, that process is just now wading into deeper waters, focusing on a draft pecking order that still feels in flux at the quarterback spot and a free-agent market that has not yet zeroed in on the destinations of starting caliber players like Kirk Cousins and Baker Mayfield.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JANUARY 7: Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton, center, stands between Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson (3), left, and Denver Broncos quarterback Jarrett Stidham (4), right, as the team comes out of the visiting tunnel before the game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada on January 7, 2024. The Las Vegas Raiders took on Denver Broncos during week 18 of NFL season. (Photo by  RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Sean Payton sees a future without Russell Wilson as his QB in Denver. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

With that in mind, here are the facts that have become clear in the first few days at the combine …

It’s not about what Wilson wants, it’s about what Payton sees beyond him

Wilson set off ripples in this whole affair recently, when he told former NFL wideout Brandon Marshall in the “I am Athlete” podcast that when it comes to the continuance of his career: “I hope it’s in Denver. I hope I get to finish there. I committed there. I wanted to be there. For me, it’s about winning. Over the next five years, I want to win two [Super Bowls]. I want to feel the chill of that trophy again. I love the city and everything else, but you also want to be in a place that wants you too. The thing I want to do is win, man. That’s all I care about.”

This was reported as news, as if Wilson’s desire to be in Denver counted in the math of the next few weeks. Here’s the deal: it doesn’t.

What Wilson wants has never been a factor in the crossroads between himself and Payton. Instead, this has everything to do with three issues — the limitations Payton sees in Wilson’s ability to carry out his offensive scheme; the salary-cap charge that a release of Wilson would trigger; and the availability of another quarterback to come in and replace Wilson.

It’s not about what Wilson wants. It’s about Payton’s belief in him as a long-term centerpiece of the offense, which was revealed in absolute clarity when Payton benched him down the stretch of last season rather than risk an injury that could strap the Broncos with even more guaranteed money in the future. Payton showed his hand. Now he’s simply stringing along the decision until the moment when the Broncos absolutely have to make a choice on March 17, which is the deadline for triggering $37 million in additional guaranteed money in 2025. Even if he’s cut before then, the team would still incur a difficult $85 million cap hit, which would likely be spread over 2024 and 2025 after being designated as a post-June 1 release. But Denver also got some unexpected relief heading into this offseason, with the 2024 salary cap rising more than $13 million more than expected to $255.4 million, giving some additional breathing room to absorb Wilson’s hit.

Inside the Broncos franchise, the overwhelming expectation is that Payton will pull the plug on Wilson’s remaining contract and cut him loose. The only surprise in the Broncos’ facility hallways now would be if Payton didn’t. And that expectation sounded well-placed Tuesday, when Payton said of a future quarterback: “Our job is to make sure this next [quarterback solution] doesn’t have a line through it.”

Wilson does. And it’s a matter of only time before that is illustrated in a release.

Right now, the Broncos are just getting into the depth of their quarterback options

One of the most concrete realities of moving on from a starting quarterback in the NFL is arriving to a point where you can ask yourself what your next solution is … and actually be able to answer the question.

This week, Denver and Payton can’t answer that question. Their evaluations on the quarterback class, specifically Payton’s, are incomplete. He still has work to do. And that also includes whatever free agency and trade options might be available, which may not be known until the agents for Cousins and Mayfield get done with their back-channel work this week at the combine. Once the realistic destinations of those players come into clarity, it will help to inform the draft order and potentially take some teams out of the running when it comes to a first-round quarterback selection.

That’s important because at this stage the overwhelming expectation inside and outside of the Broncos is that once Wilson is off the roster, Payton is going to have a specific draft target in mind. The only question is who that player is and whether the Broncos will have to get aggressive on draft day to land that player. The sense I get is the jury is still out on “second tier” quarterbacks like Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy and Oregon’s Bo Nix; they could both solidify their draft stock as first-round picks (albeit with varying ranges in Round 1) in the coming days and weeks. There’s also the lingering possibility that one player could slide in the process, possibly North Carolina’s Drake Maye, offering the Broncos an opportunity to make a move up from the No. 12 spot to get their next quarterback. And then there’s the outlying chance that Denver could make a staggering move from 12 into the top two or three picks, which would require a package of high draft picks and potentially a star player to get done.

However the path ahead solidifies, the next two weeks will likely have a lot to do with it, making interviews and medicals of the quarterbacks extremely important, as well as the workouts of those who participate at the combine. All options are on the table for Payton. None are crystal clear. And that might be playing into Wilson still lingering on the roster until there is a surefire set of choices beyond him.

This is a vital Sean Payton decision, and he knows it

When Wilson is gone, a large portion of his failure will lie at the feet of general manager George Paton. Regardless of what the extenuating circumstances are for that defeat — and there are legitimate ones — Paton ultimately is the man who takes the “L” for Wilson’s tenure as a Broncos quarterback. That changes in the next quarterback decision, and it certainly should resonate with Payton.

Regardless of how it is framed externally, this next set of decisions — from moving on from Wilson to the next quarterback through the door — are in Payton’s hands. This is his show in Denver, aided closely by a hand-selected new hire, Cody Rager, who was plucked by Payton from the New Orleans Saints for a high-ranking role inside the Broncos’ front office. Rager will report to Paton, but the power structure described from sources following his hire pegged him as Payton’s close confidant and a de-facto “number 3” in the organization’s power chart, behind only Payton and Paton. The next quarterback? It will be Payton’s decision, but also closely tied to Rager’s résumé moving forward.

This could strengthen Payton’s grip on the Broncos to the point that if he wants to move on from Paton and install Rager as his hand-chosen general manager, that move becomes more realistic. Conversely, if he makes the wrong call at QB and the next addition fails, it reopens a debate about whether Payton or Paton should be making all of the personnel decisions unilaterally. It’s worth noting here that Payton as a head coach has never selected a quarterback in the first two rounds of an NFL draft and took a quarterback in the third round only one time. That third-rounder was Garrett Grayson in 2015, who was cut by the Saints after only two seasons.

Step back and absorb it as a full picture and it becomes even more clear how important this Wilson decision is for Payton. Not only for Wilson’s future and the Broncos’ cap situation, but the path forward for a head coach who is potentially wading into a personally unprecedented draft debate in the next few weeks and beyond. What Payton does is the first truly defining step of his Broncos era, not to mention a potentially seismic shift in how the power structure of the franchise continues to be shaped and focused for years to come.

This content was originally sourced and posted at Yahoo! Sports – News, Scores, Standings, Rumors, Fantasy Games »
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