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Russell Wilson’s disastrous first year in Denver could raise red flags in new era of offseason QB movement

The NFL saw an unprecedented volume of veteran quarterbacks switch teams this spring. But after the abject failures with Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson this season, teams may not be so quick to acquire — and pay for — veteran passers as they have been recently.

Let’s start with Wilson, who ignited the 2022 version of a trend that really began when the Los Angeles Rams traded for Matthew Stafford before the 2021 season.

The Broncos sent two first-round picks, two second-round picks, a fifth-round pick, quarterback Drew Lock, tight end Noah Fant and defensive lineman Shelby Harris to the Seattle Seahawks for Wilson and a fourth-round pick. That’s a lot on its surface, but Wilson was a nine-time Pro Bowler with a Super Bowl ring to his name heading into the season. And it made even more sense given the Broncos’ inability to replace Peyton Manning since his retirement in 2015 and their impending sale to the Walton-Penner group. The Broncos then signed Wilson to a five-year, $245 million contract extension with $165 million guaranteed.

Denver wanted to replicate the success Los Angeles had with Stafford in 2021 and make a run at the Super Bowl. But instead, Wilson cratered with career lows in completion rate, touchdown passes and yards per attempt as the Broncos plummeted to the bottom of the AFC West.

Wilson, who did miss two games this season due to a hamstring injury and concussion, respectively, now ranks middle-of-the-pack among his quarterback peers in passing yards per game this season and is tied for 11th in interceptions thrown with nine. That’s not what the Broncos’ new ownership group paid for when they gave him a new contract.

Nathaniel Hackett lost his job as Broncos head coach on Monday. Russell Wilson’s performance is a big part of the reason this season has gone south. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

It’s unclear exactly why Wilson regressed so badly in his 11th season. Perhaps it’s the change of scenery — a new city, new teammates and a new offense run by a first-time coaching staff isn’t the best recipe for success. The Broncos also fired head coach Nathaniel Hackett on Monday just 11 months into his tenure. Wilson’s success with the Seahawks could also have been a product of his environment in Seattle with coach Pete Carroll, despite the pair’s reported differences in opinion in their final years together. Just look at how well Geno Smith fared in his first year as Carroll’s starter.

Regardless of the why, what has transpired during Wilson’s 13 games in Denver should be a warning sign for other teams looking for a quick fix to their quarterback issue.

Could Watson follow in Wilson’s footsteps?

The early returns on the monster Watson trade to the Cleveland Browns and subsequent contract extension are not great, either.

While Watson is 2-2 as the Browns’ starter this season after missing the first 11 games with a suspension stemming from multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, his on-field production is abysmal. He’s completed 57.7 percent of his passes and averaged just 175.8 yards per game with only two passing touchdowns, one rushing touchdown and three interceptions.

The Browns’ offense looks bad with Watson under center. His three scores are the only offensive touchdowns the Browns have managed during his time as the starter, and the unit has averaged just 9.75 points per game since Watson’s return. With Jacoby Brissett playing QB for the first 11 games, the Browns’ offense averaged 2.7 touchdowns and 23.9 points per game.

Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb has also played worse with Watson. Chubb averaged 94.5 rushing yards and 1.1 rushing touchdowns per game from Weeks 1-12. But with Watson from Weeks 13-16, Chubb managed only 76.3 yards per game and no rushing touchdowns. Cleveland was mathematically eliminated from making the playoffs Saturday after the blowing a 10-point lead to the New Orleans Saints in a 17-10 loss.

The Browns arguably gave up more than the Broncos did for Wilson — in both trade and financial compensation. It cost the Browns three first-round picks, a 2023 third-round pick and a 2024 fourth-round pick to acquire Watson from the Houston Texans. Cleveland then inked Watson to the largest fully guaranteed contract ever: ​​five years for $230 million. The deal may yet reshape how the league does quarterback contracts and has already led the NFL Players Association to file a collusion claim against the league’s owners over subsequent contracts.

It’s still early, and Watson could turn his career around in Cleveland despite the copious amounts of negativity surrounding him and the team’s decision to hand such a controversial player almost a quarter of a billion dollars. He didn’t play for 700 days after his mutually agreed-upon separation with the Texans in 2021 and his subsequent suspension in 2022. But so far, the Browns haven’t seen much indication he can be the star he was during his time in Houston.

Will QB-needy teams be more wary?

Despite Wilson’s implosion and Watson’s early issues, there are still plenty of playoff-caliber teams in desperate need of a veteran passer.

There are at least six teams that could be in the market for a new quarterback and won’t be in a position to draft one of the top prospects this spring. That includes the New York Jets, Washington Commanders and the Saints. And there are several potential options who could be available, too, such as Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo via free agency or Derek Carr and Aaron Rodgers by trade.

It’s an enticing idea considering the recent success of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with Brady in 2020 and the Rams with Stafford in 2021. Both teams won the Super Bowl the same year they brought in a veteran quarterback.

But after the Wilson debacle, maybe teams will think twice before making any major deals this time around.

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