Russell Wilson Trade Underscores John Elway’s Massive Failure With Denver Broncos

The Denver Broncos made a $95 million gamble to land Aaron Rodgers, and it backfired completely. The three-time Super Bowl-winning franchise got its consolation prize, though, when it pried Russell Wilson away from the Seahawks in exchange for a haul of players and draft picks. 

Bringing Wilson, a nine-time Pro Bowler, to Denver is a solid win for the franchise as it immediately vaults up to be an AFC contender. Whether it was Wilson or Rodgers or Jameis Winston or Mitchell Trubisky under center in 2022, the Wilson trade underscores franchise icon John Elway’s massive failure as a Broncos executive.

Broncos pay a premium to add Russell Wilson

The Broncos have several weapons on offense, a defense that ranked third in scoring D in 2021, and a new head coach in Nathaniel Hackett, who was the offensive coordinator that helped Rodgers post gaudy numbers and back-to-back MVP awards in Green Bay. Denver was a postseason candidate in 2021 before dropping four straight to end the season. Adding Wilson makes it a legitimate contender.

But Wilson didn’t come cheap.

Denver had to part with quarterback Drew Lock, tight end Noah Fant, 2021 sacks leader Shelby Harris, and two first-round, two second-round, and a fifth-round draft pick. Seattle sent back Wilson and a fourth-round pick to complete the deal, according to a tweet by Adam Schefter.

The AFC West is now loaded with QB talent with Wilson in Denver, Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, Derek Carr in Las Vegas, and Justin Herbert with the Los Angeles Chargers. 

Lost in the shuffle of the Wilson news is just how bad Denver has been at identifying QB talent since John Elway took over as president of football operations in 2011.

Wilson trade highlights John Elway’s failure as a Denver exec

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson drops back to pass; Denver Broncos executive John Elway speaks at the 2019 NFL Combine
(l-r) Russell Wilson drops to pass; John Elway at the NFL combine | Abbie Parr/Getty Images; Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The last time the Broncos added a marquee quarterback via trade or free agency, it resulted in Peyton Manning eventually delivering a Super Bowl title. Signing Manning after the Indianapolis Colts cut him was the first major move on Elway’s watch.

It’s been a mixed bag since then. Actually, mixed bag might be putting it kindly.

As Peter King noted for NBC Sports, Denver’s track record with QBs since Elway joined the front office is littered with potholes:

  • Brock Osweiler, drafted in 2012 (second round) 
  • Trevor Siemian, drafted in 2015 (seventh round) 
  • Paxton Lynch, drafted in 2016 (first round) 
  • Case Keenum, free-agent signing in 2018
  • Joe Flacco, acquired via trade in 2019 
  • Drew Lock, drafted in 2019 (second round) 

Those six QBs combined for a .416 winning percentage (35-49 record), 20,144 passing yards, and 99 touchdown passes with the Broncos.

Wilson has a .658 career winning percentage (104-53-1 record), 37,059 yards passing, and 292 touchdown passes with the Seahawks.

In short, Elway, one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, is a terrible judge of QB talent. At the very least, he’s a poor judge of talent for those whose job it is to evaluate QB talent. Elway’s bio on the Denver Broncos website explains he works closely with the head coach in the roster development process. Take a look at the list of QB “talent” accumulated during Elway’s front office stint, and it’s hard to label that process as anything but a massive failure.

Wilson should bring stability (and cost control) at quarterback

Wilson will have to approve a move to Denver since he has a no-trade clause in his contract, but that’s a mere formality to the Broncos winning the blockbuster trade (and the Seahawks blowing it).

Elway and the Broncos have repeatedly struck out on drafting quarterbacks, and Manning is the lone free agent QB to achieve success in orange and blue. Wilson should be more like a Manning and less like a Flacco for Denver. 

He might be even better.

Where Manning was coming off two neck surgeries and joined the Broncos when he was 36, Wilson has proven to be durable throughout his NFL career and won’t turn 34 until late in the 2022 season. Denver also has three of its top pass-catchers — Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, and Jerry Jeudy — back in the mix this year, giving Wilson plenty of talented targets to work with. 

Wilson is also a relative bargain in the pocketbook, with cap hits of $24 million this year and $27 million in 2023. Given the four-year, $200 million extension the Packers just gave to Rodgers, Mahomes’ mammoth $450 million deal with the Chiefs, and Josh Allen’s recent $258 million deal with the Bills, that’s practically flea market shopping.

John Elway’s history of bringing QB talent to Denver might not be the best, and giving up a ton for Russell Wilson underscores that, but this shapes up to be a win for Elway and the Broncos.

Stats courtesy of Football Reference. Contract figures courtesy of Spotrac.