Broncos to release Russell Wilson, take $85M dead money hit

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos have informed nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson they plan to release him, a move that ends a tumultuous two-season run with the team.

"We spoke with Russell Wilson [Monday] to inform him of his release after the start of the league year [March 13, 4 p.m. ET]," coach Sean Payton and general manager George Paton said in a joint statement. "On behalf of the Broncos, we thank Russell for his contributions and dedication to our team and community while wishing him the best as he continues his career. As we move forward, we are focused on building the strongest team possible for the 2024 season and beyond. We are excited to improve this offseason and will have the flexibility to get better through the draft and free agency."

Wilson released a statement thanking the city of Denver, several teammates, the team's cafeteria workers and vice president of player development Ray Jackson. He did not mention Payton, Paton or the team's ownership.

"Over these last three years, you have welcomed my family and me with open arms and have embraced us as members the Denver community. This city will always hold a special place in my heart. Our family grew here, we made countless memories and friendships, and formed relationships that will last a lifetime," he wrote in the statement.

"To my teammates, thank you for going to battle together and for being there through it all. There are so many moments I cherish because of you and I am blessed for the impact you have had on my life. I am beyond grateful for all of you and to have been able to run out as your teammate was an honor."

He ended his statement by writing, "Tough times don't last, but tough people do. God's got me. I am excited for what's next."

Wilson's release will end a disappointing chapter for both sides. The Broncos went 11-19 in Wilson's starts over two seasons and failed to make the playoffs. Payton benched him with two games remaining in 2023, a move that in effect marked the end of the quarterback's career in Denver.

The Broncos signed Wilson to a five-year, $242.6 million deal after his arrival and will take an $85 million hit in dead money over the next two seasons because of the release.

In the coming weeks, Denver will have to decide whether to take the biggest part of that dead money hit in the 2024 or 2025 season.

The Broncos went all-in to acquire Wilson two years ago from the Seattle Seahawks, sending five draft picks, including two first-round and two second-round selections, as well as three players.

"It's just unique that you can trade for a quarterback -- a franchise quarterback -- in his prime, and we just felt that we had to take that chance," Paton said at the time.

Ultimately, the Broncos didn't get enough of those franchise quarterback moments. Wilson played for three head coaches in Denver: Nathaniel Hackett and interim Jerry Rosburg in 2022 and Payton in 2023.

Wilson, 35, enters a free agent market where teams such as the Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers could make a run at the veteran.

"For me, it's about winning -- over the next two years, I want to win two [Super Bowls], I want to feel the chill of that trophy again," Wilson said recently on the "I Am Athlete" podcast. "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 to win, that's all I care about."

Asked at the scouting combine about the quest to find an answer at quarterback over the long term, Payton said, "We better."

After an offseason and training camp last year when Payton had promised to fit an offense around Wilson that played to his strengths, Denver opened the season 1-5.

The tipping point of the very public football divorce was likely the conversation involving Wilson, his representatives and the Broncos during the team's Week 9 bye in 2023. The Broncos maintain that they wanted to find a "creative way" for Wilson to waive, or adjust, a $37 million injury guarantee in his contract.

Wilson said he was told at the time that if he and his representatives didn't play financial ball, he would be pulled as the starter.

"They definitely told me I was going to be benched and all that," Wilson said toward the end of the season.

The Broncos, including Paton and owner/CEO Greg Penner, have said the discussions about potential financial or salary cap relief were in "good faith" and common in the league between a team and a player with such a lucrative, long-term deal.

"It didn't come up again, fast forward Week 17 Sean makes a change at the quarterback position," Paton said. "This was a football decision made by Sean, what he thought was in the best interest of the team. This completely independent of any conversations I had with the agent."