Typically speaking, backup quarterback signings in free agency aren’t much to get the needle moving regarding fan interest.
Most teams, though, didn’t have a QB they awarded significant money to have a historically bad season, so sometimes, a little more attention to the backup is warranted.
Russell Wilson, in his first season with the Denver Broncos, had statistically the worst season of his career. Yes, he was fighting injuries. Yes, his offensive line was also fighting injuries. Yet, the ineptness of the offense led by a supposed franchise player doesn’t give him a pass.
Luckily for him, there was no one behind him to take his place. Brett Rypien, even when given the opportunity due to injury to the starter, has never once looked capable of being an NFL starting QB, so Wilson was always going to be in the clear in 2022.
Now, there’s a new sheriff in town in Sean Payton, and he isn’t content to just roll the dice with Wilson after his performance last year. Sure, the hope is that he can turn him (and the offense) around, but this is a guy accustomed to winning and winning big, and if his QB isn’t doing the job, he wanted someone he could make a change with.
Once thought of as the elite of the elite high school prospects, ranked as the number one dual threat QB when he committed to Baylor, he seemed to have a path ahead of him that would result in NFL stardom. Unfortunately, as it happens so often with a number of high profile recruits, things didn’t pan out the way he’d hoped.
He played well enough backing up Seth Russell and getting a handful of starts at Baylor as a true freshman, but following the Baylor/Art Briles sexual abuse cover up scandal, he transferred to Auburn, where he again played well enough, but not great. He’d end up getting taken in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots, but couldn’t convince Bill Belichick to make him the heir to Tom Brady.
He played with the Las Vegas Raiders last season, where he started two games and looked good in each, completing 45-70 passes for 584 yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions for a 92 passer rating. Mind you, he did this against the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers, not bottom feeders.
He now enters his fifth NFL season breathing down the neck of Russell Wilson. Payton has made productive QBs out of the likes of Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill, don’t think for a second he can’t do it with Stidham should the situation call for it.
And multiple NFL talking heads are in agreement that Stidham is more of an insurance plan than a clipboard holder for the Broncos.
The NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks listed Stidham as a signing that should not be overlooked, saying, “Stidham’s IQ, arm talent and promising flashes as a spot starter for Las Vegas undoubtedly raised his profile as a developmental player with QB1 potential...this signing proves the new coach isn’t going to kowtow to the team’s highest-paid player.”
NBC’s Matthew Berry also reported Payton isn’t married to the idea of Wilson being the long-term option and will cut bait after the season need be.
“There’s no way Denver can cut him this year, but next year, while the dead cap hit would certainly be bad, it could be spread out over two years and wouldn’t be franchise crippling,” Berry continued about Wilson. “Said one source: ‘I don’t think Payton likes Russ. He’s got one year to prove himself or Payton will move on.’”
It seems likely that if Payton is indeed unhappy with Wilson, and the highly paid QB is not earning his paycheck by mid-year, Payton will cut the Wilson audition short and give Stidham, eight years younger than Wilson, a chance to prove himself as more than just a spot starter.
None of this is to say that Stidham is who Payton has in mind as his franchise QB, nor is any of this to say Wilson can’t redeem himself under Payton’s tutelage.
All this is to say that the leash given to QBs is finite in nature, no matter how much money they are due. Wilson makes a lot of money, but if he comes out flat to start the 2023 season, Payton has someone in the wings hoping to make noise.
TL:DR version: Russell Wilson better come into training camp with the mindset that if he doesn’t get right, his career in the NFL, not just in Denver, may be over.
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