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Broncos Mailbag: What is Sean Payton’s plan at quarterback for 2024?

Denver Post Broncos writer Parker Gabriel posts his Broncos Mailbag weekly during the season and periodically during the offseason. Click here to submit a question.

Hey, Parker! Not sure if the mailbag is still being opened this time of the year, but I wanted to ask a question that has been nagging at this 46-year Bronco devotee since the free-agency period started. We all know that NFL teams are only as good as their offensive and defensive lines. No offense to Pat Surtain II, but even as good as he is, he is not going to single-handedly change the defense. Since the Broncos are now in full rebuild mode, and I hate to say this, but wouldn’t it be better to get at least two top picks for Surtain, as the Broncos have SO many holes to fill and could sure use another first and maybe a second rounder? If they wanted to, that would also allow them to trade up significantly for one of the top QBs this year. Plus it would allow Surtain to go to a contender. Your thoughts?

— Rick Trout, El Rino, Okla.

Oh, we’re checking the mail year-round here at Mailbag HQ, Rick. So thanks for writing in and getting this week’s rendition started with a good question.

I understand the thought process. Let’s make one thing clear off the top: There’s been no indication that Denver’s entertaining trading Surtain and, even more to the point, part of the reason for taking the bigger portion of Russell Wilson’s dead cap charge in 2024 is because the Broncos are expecting to make moves like massive extensions for Surtain and guard Quinn Meinerz in the next year.

A year is a long time, to be sure, and a theoretical trade window doesn’t close this summer. Jalen Ramsey went from Jacksonville to the Los Angeles Rams during his fourth season (Surtain’s entering his fourth) for two first-round picks and a fourth-rounder. Maybe worth mentioning here: The Jags turned those first-round picks into edge K’Lavon Chaisson and running back Travis Etienne. Etienne has two 1,000-yard seasons under his belt and 16 touchdown runs in two seasons. Chaisson has five career sacks. Bites at the apple don’t always make a meal.

More to the point, the thing that makes Surtain unique in this conversation is that he is so good and also so young. In fact, Surtain is two months younger than Oregon quarterback Bo Nix and one month older than Washington’s Michael Penix, Jr. So no matter what your timeline is on a rebuild, you should have a long competitive window where Surtain is in his prime. At the outset of the 2026 season, Surtain will be 26. He’ll be younger then than Kansas City’s L’Jarius Sneed or Green Bay’s Jaire Alexander were at the beginning of the 2024 season.

Denver will pick up Surtain’s fifth-year option between now and May 2, which will give him a guaranteed $19.802 million salary for 2025. But that’s really just a placeholder for starting extension talks. If they can’t find a deal, there’s always the franchise tag option in 2026. But both sides would probably rather find a long-term agreement.

There’s no doubt the Broncos are short on good players, but Surtain’s an exceptional one and he’s likely to be for a long time.

At this point, it’s apparent it’s a full rebuild. Do we just not swing and potentially miss on a quarterback this draft and trade back and take the most talented available player at the time and trade for Sam Howell?

— Dustin Teays, Bayard, Iowa

Hey Dustin, good question. Obviously since the submission, Howell’s been traded to Seattle instead of Denver, but the idea of trading back is still on the table. And Howell, to me, made sense as a bridge, though the Commanders got a pretty strong return for him in the form of a pick swap that equaled the value of a late-third- or early-fourth-round pick.

The Broncos have enough needs to justify that trade-back move, especially at other premium positions. They could use an interior defensive lineman, another cornerback, a succession plan at tackle, a game-breaking wide receiver, an edge rusher or a Brock Bowers. Bottom line: They need good players. As many as they can get. But they’re also not going to solve all or even most of those positions in one single draft class. And, in a way, that’s how you end up always winding back to the QB conversation. The Broncos are going to be rebuilding for this offseason and next at least. But that project can’t really be finished unless you find a QB, so you’d better find one as soon as possible.

That’s why, if you think you can answer the QB question in this draft, you do it.

Hey Parker, so who’s out there that we could bring in to compete with Jarrett Stidham? Ryan Tannehill is the biggest name available, but do we take a chance at kicking the tires on Carson Wentz, Brian Hoyer or Trevor Siemian? I don’t want to see us reach for a quarterback in the first round, especially with the talent that’s supposed to be in next year’s draft class. We have too many holes and this seems like throwing a lamb to the slaughter.

— Mark, Arvada

Second thought first, Mark. That’s what makes No. 12 kind of a tricky spot. Especially after Minnesota acquired a second first-round pick (No. 23 to go along with their own No. 11), it seems likely that four quarterbacks are coming off the board in the top 10 picks. If Denver is going to trade up to be one of those four teams, it has to do better than Minnesota’s offer or the New York Giants trying to go up from No. 6. A lot can change in the next month, but from this vantage point it’s just not clear how the Broncos pull that off without paying through the nose.

Now, if you’re convinced that one of those guys in the top 10 is Joe Burrow, Patrick Mahomes or C.J. Stroud, then what price is too high? But making that move after all the draft capital spent to acquire Russell Wilson and Sean Payton the past two years, you’d better be right.

As for who could be brought in: As of this writing, I count 23 free-agent quarterback signings — 18 changed teams — and three trades, none involving the Broncos. It seems most of the options Denver looked closest at in recent weeks are younger players. Hoyer is 38, Tannehill 36 and Wentz 31. So far the Broncos have avoided adding a player just to add one. But even if they draft a guy in the first round, it’d be a surprise if that was their only addition.

Trying to understand dead cap. I realize Russell Wilson is costing $85 million dead cap less reimbursement for salary earned elsewhere. We are on the hook for $39 million regardless and Wilson will probably take league minimum for 2024 to help his new team since he’s getting paid anyway. If he proves himself elsewhere and gets a $20 million contract with that team in 2025, will that lower our dead cap hit for 2025?

— Ron Blevins, Calabash, N.C.

Hey Ron, thanks for writing in and for the good question. The key difference is between cash (actual money getting paid by the Walton-Penner Family Ownership Group) and salary cap charges (accounting).

The $39 million is actual cash Wilson is owed this year. It will be split between Pittsburgh ($1.21 million, the veteran minimum) and Denver ($39.79 million). Whatever the Steelers pay Wilson only reduces Denver’s cash obligation, which is why he was happy to play at the minimum. No reason to reduce Pittsburgh’s flexibility in any capacity when it doesn’t impact Wilson’s pay in the slightest.

Even though Denver’s cap obligation extends into 2025, its cash obligation does not. That’s why wherever Wilson plays and whatever he makes after this year has no impact on the Broncos.

As for the $85 million in dead cap, it’s a combination of that $39 million guaranteed and then money that Wilson had already been paid as a bonus but that Denver hadn’t yet accounted for on its cap. It can get complicated, but think about it this way: The Broncos paid Wilson a $50 million signing bonus when he signed his extension in 2022. Then he had three years of guaranteed salary plus some option bonus money. But he only counted $17 million against the Broncos cap in 2022 and $22 million in 2023 because of the way the team could prorate the accounting of that bonus money out. But when you release a player, you don’t just get to say, “Oh well, we paid him $124 million but only counted $39 million of it against our cap.”

I’ve seen numerous times that Russell Wilson’s contract extension included $161 million guaranteed. If this is true, why will the Broncos “only” incur an $85 million total hit to the salary cap in conjunction with the new contract? Don’t they have to take a hit for all the guaranteed dollars?

— Greg, Broomfield

Hey Greg, good question and similar in a way to the one above. In actuality, Wilson had $124 million fully guaranteed at signing and $161 million practically guaranteed. Except there was nothing practical about how it all went down. The guarantee date that became the subject of so much drama this fall — $37 million in 2025 salary becoming guaranteed on March 17 of this year — looked like a sure bet when he signed the contract extension. The initial thought was, play through 2024 and then start thinking about restructuring and moving money around when the cap number went North of $55 million in 2025. These first three seasons were supposed to be the no-brainers.

Obviously, instead we got an unprecedented situation and a double-the-previous-record dead cap charge. We got the Broncos deciding they’d rather take $85 million in cap space the next two years than keep him on the roster another year and incur $37 million more in cash and cap charges.

Then, to answer your question, the $85 million hit is the difference between what Wilson had been paid and what was left to account for on the salary cap. He was paid $124 million, they accounted for $39 million the past two years on the cap. So $85 million is what’s left.

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