ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos are living in a nightmare.
Through three weeks, Denver has lost to the weakest member of their division at home, blown a 21-3 lead to another weak opponent at home, and taken a 70-20 beating from the only playoff contender they’ve faced off against. Only six teams in league history have rebounded from an 0-3 start to make the playoffs. With a seventh playoff spot and a 17th regular-season game, the league is giving current teams a better chance of recovering than their ancestors, but the Broncos’ 2023 campaign is already on life support, and September isn’t over.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, but one man who bore the brunt of a disappointing 2022 season has been a silver lining for the Broncos through three games:
“He’s moving well, and he’s making good decisions. I knew he could throw the deep ball well, but we’re seeing it,” head coach Sean Payton said on Wednesday. “He’s operating quickly and throwing well.”
Wilson came into the season as the Broncos’ most notable remaining scapegoat from the 2022 season. He had the worst season of his NFL career in just about every metric, including completion percentage, touchdowns, yards per attempt, quarterback rating and QBR. The Broncos’ offense was the worst in the NFL, and he finished with a 4-11 record as a starter.
But Russell Wilson has returned to form in 2023… at least in the first few weeks.
He’s fifth in the NFL in touchdowns (7), sixth in yards per attempt (7.6) and per completion (11.6), seventh in air yards per attempt (7.9), seventh in passer rating (99.5) and eighth in passing yards (791). He’s posted those numbers while being pressured at the sixth-highest rate in the league.
For what it’s worth, Wilson’s three turnovers are the league average for a quarterback through three games.
By the numbers, Wilson has easily been one of the 10 best quarterbacks in the NFL. While it may not feel like it because of the losses, Wilson has lived up to his standing as the league’s fifth highest-paid quarterback.
Expecting the fifth highest-paid quarterback to put up the fifth-best stats may be an intuitive approach, but it’s important to remember that the NFL isn’t a totally free mark. When players enter the league, they play four years on a cost-controlled contract. Tua Tagovailoa is worth at least $45 million per year, but his average salary on his initial contract is less than $8 million. (That’s why the most foolproof path to success in the modern NFL is to find a talented quarterback on a rookie contract and spend the surplus money on a talented roster around him.)
If you remove the quarterbacks who are still on their cheaper rookie contracts, therefore comparing Wilson’s stats with only those whom you can compare his contract to, Wilson climbs even higher in the rankings to second in yards per completion, third in passing touchdowns, fourth in yards per attempt, fifth in passer rating and sixth in passing yards. Essentially, Wilson has played to the level you’d expect of a quarterback on a five-year, $242 million contract.
He’s actually played to almost the exact same level that you’d expect from Wilson himself. Over the course of his career, Wilson has posted a 100.2 passer rating. In 2023, he has a 99.5 passer rating. While he’s seen a negligible dip in efficiency versus his career average, his volume has increased. He’s thrown for 263.7 yards per game, which is far more than his 235.1 per game throughout his career.
If you compare Wilson to the four other quarterbacks in the league’s top-five highest-paid passers, he has produced objectively better numbers than three of them. Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson and Jalen Hurts all trail Wilson by at least 50 passing yards per game. Jackson’s 95.5 passer rating comes close to Wilson’s 99.5, but Hurts (84.5) and Burrow (66.2) lag behind. The other quarterback in the top five, Justin Herbert, has a 112.9 rating, which easily leads the group.
Wilson’s numbers are extremely similar to what Patrick Mahomes, the league’s eighth highest-paid quarterback, has produced through three games. Take a look:
While Wilson’s own stats have glistened, his offense has been average. The Broncos are 15th in points and 15th in yards, both of which leave plenty to be desired despite being a major step forward. Denver’s eighth-place standing in yards per play, ninth-place standing in yards per possession and 12th-place standing in points per possession all give hope for growth. Denver also has the third-most offensive penalties, which could be an area of potential growth if the Broncos can cut them down.
For a quarterback, individual numbers aren’t everything. Until he leads a top-10 offense, and finds a couple of wins, Wilson can’t be praised for his work. And a three-game sample size isn’t nearly enough to justify throwing out the 2022 tape and riding with him through the 2028 season, which is the final year of his contract.
But three solid outings are a good start. And, at least according to the numbers, Wilson has been worth the contract the Broncos gave him at the start of last season.