Jets trading QB Zach Wilson to Broncos, source says

ByRich Cimini ESPN logo
Tuesday, April 23, 2024

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The New York Jets, who thought they had the quarterback position locked up for more than a decade when they drafted Zach Wilson with the No. 2 pick in 2021, traded him to the Denver Broncos on Monday, a source confirmed to ESPN.

Based on their original investment, the Jets got pennies on the dollar -- they will receive a sixth-round selection (No. 203) in this week's NFL draft from the Broncos, who in addition to Wilson will get a seventh-round pick (No. 256). The Jets and Broncos are splitting the $5.5 million Wilson is due this season with each team paying $2.75 million, ESPN's Adam Schefter reports.

The trade means that only one of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2021 draft remains with his original team -- Trevor Lawrence, who was picked No. 1 overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars. The other four -- Wilson, Trey Lance (No. 3 pick), Justin Fields (No. 11) and Mac Jones (No. 15) -- have all been traded.

The Jets-Wilson breakup came as no surprise, as the franchise announced Feb. 28 that it had granted him permission to speak to other teams about a potential trade. Wilson wanted a fresh start after three tumultuous seasons, including last year as a backup. The Jets told him as far back as last season that they would try to accommodate him, sources said.

It took longer than expected, leaving Wilson in limbo and prompting him to skip the first week of the Jets' voluntary offseason program.

The trade leaves Aaron Rodgers, 40, coming off Achilles surgery, and newly signed backup Tyrod Taylor, 34, as the only quarterbacks on the roster. The Jets might draft a quarterback after the first round with the hope of developing him for their post-Rodgers future.

Wilson will be a free agent in 2025 because the Broncos aren't expected to exercise his fifth-year option for $22.4 million. That decision must be made by May 2. He is due to make $5.45 million in 2024, fully guaranteed, in the final year of his contract.

The move gives the Broncos flexibility as they rebuild their quarterback position following the release of Russell Wilson. The Broncos hold the No. 12 pick in the first round and are expected to select a quarterback at some point during the draft. They also have veteran Jarrett Stidham, who started the final two games last season, on the roster.

"Look, I mean, do we have to draft a quarterback?'' Broncos coach Sean Payton said last week. "You'd say, man, it sure looks like we have to draft a quarterback and yet, it's got to be the right fit, the right one. And if you had the tip sheets as to who everyone else was taking, it would be easier to answer that question. ... That's the puzzle here.''

General manager George Paton said last week that the Broncos don't want to "force" the pick when they select a quarterback.

"Otherwise, we'll be in this position next year and the years after," Paton said. "You want to get the right player at 12. Our first pick we've got to hit on, whether it's a quarterback, whether it's a tackle, a receiver, you name it, we need to get an impact player.''

The Broncos released Wilson in March after two ill-fated seasons. As a result, the Broncos took on an $85 million dead-money charge against their salary cap over the next two seasons, $53 million of that in 2024. The Broncos did not sign a quarterback in free agency.

Since Peyton Manning retired after the Broncos' Super Bowl 50 win to end the 2015 season, the team has started games with 12 different quarterbacks -- 13 players overall as running back Phillip Lindsay started a game in the Wildcat formation in 2020 when Denver had no quarterbacks in uniform because of violations of COVID-19 protocols.

In terms of the salary cap, the Jets will clear $2.75 million in space, meaning Wilson will count $8.43 million on this year's cap in dead money.

It was a trying three years for Wilson, 24, who underwent knee surgery in 2022, got benched twice that season, was replaced by Rodgers in 2023 and saw his leadership ability questioned at times.

The last blow came in February when owner Woody Johnson delivered this zinger at the NFL Honors in Las Vegas: "We need a backup quarterback. We didn't have one last year."

Johnson softened his stance at the March owners' meeting, saying, "I feel badly about Zach in some ways" because he wasn't afforded the opportunity to spend a year learning from Rodgers. "He's never had that."

Wilson played in 34 games and had an 11-21 record as a starter. He had more interceptions (25) than touchdown passes (23) and completed only 57% of his passes, finishing 35th out of 36 qualified passers in QBR (33.6) over his three years.

When the 2022 season ended, the Jets made it clear that Wilson would be replaced as the starter. They traded for Rodgers but kept Wilson as the primary backup, saying the situation was ideal for him to learn from an all-time great. That plan got blown up immediately as Rodgers suffered a season-ending Achilles tear in Week 1.

The Jets managed a 4-3 start with Wilson, who limited his turnovers but failed to generate any offensive spark. Eventually, the plan collapsed. The offense slipped into a funk, managing only 24 points over a three-game span (all losses), and Wilson was benched in favor of former practice squad player Tim Boyle. Some players thought Wilson was scapegoated, considering the team's other problems, including a patchwork offensive line.

Coach Robert Saleh's decision backfired, prompting him to go back to Wilson, who reportedly was hesitant to return out of fear of getting hurt and damaging his offseason value. Wilson took the reins and responded with the best game of his career, passing for 301 yards and two touchdowns in a 30-6 win over the playoff-bound Houston Texans.

The following week, Wilson suffered a concussion. He sat out the final three games after his mother announced on social media that he had experienced "problems with blurred vision and his depth perception" during the game. Wilson didn't speak to reporters for the remainder of the season, declining interviews when players were preparing to head out for the offseason Jan. 8.

Perhaps Wilson's low point came in 2022, when he was benched a few days after refusing to take any accountability in a postgame news conference for a 10-3 loss to the New England Patriots. It resulted in a torrent of criticism. Eventually, a tearful Wilson apologized in front of the team.

This wasn't the first time that a highly drafted quarterback didn't work out for the Jets. In 2018, they picked Sam Darnold with the third overall pick but he, too, struggled and was traded away, setting the stage for Wilson.

NFL Network first reported Wilson's trade to the Broncos.

ESPN's Jeff Legwold contributed to this report.

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