NFL’s worst quarterback trades: Where does Broncos’ Russell Wilson deal rank?

NFL’s worst quarterback trades: Where does Broncos’ Russell Wilson deal rank?

The Denver Broncos’ announcement Monday that they would release Russell Wilson next week was an official admission of the disastrous decision they made in 2022 to trade for the former Super Bowl-winning quarterback.

After giving up five draft picks and three players to acquire Wilson from the Seattle Seahawks, the Broncos awarded the quarterback a massive five-year, $242.6 million contract extension before he had even taken so much as a practice snap. In two seasons, Wilson appeared in 30 games and went 11-19, never reaching the playoffs. He was benched in late December in part because of poor performance, but also because of the financial implications and the fear Wilson would get injured and trigger 2024 guarantees.

The Wilson acquisition and ensuing extension will forever rank as one of the worst trades for a veteran quarterback in NFL history. The Broncos, in releasing Wilson, will suffer a dead-cap hit of $85 million split between this year and next year.

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But NFL history is full of cautionary tales of historically bad quarterback moves.

The Dolphins’ failed Daunte Culpepper experiment in 2006 always comes to mind. That error in judgement was exacerbated by Miami’s decision to acquire Culpepper from Minnesota for a second-round pick, banking on the quarterback recovering from knee surgery more effectively than free agent Drew Brees would from shoulder surgery. Culpepper played only four games before clashing with head coach Nick Saban and succumbing to injury. Brees signed with the Saints and became a future Hall of Famer.

Venturing dangerously close to regrettable territory are the Browns, who enter Year 3 with Deshaun Watson. They’re still waiting for him to deliver a return on their investment of three first-round picks, two seconds, a fourth-rounder and an unprecedented $230 million fully guaranteed contract. Can Watson change the narrative? The 2024 season could determine that answer.

But with the book now closed on Wilson and the Broncos, let’s rank the 10 worst trades for a veteran quarterback in the last 35 years. (We’ll save draft-day deals for college stars-turned-NFL busts for another day.)

10. Carson Palmer to Raiders for a first- and second-round pick (2011)

When the Bengals decided to end the Palmer era and turn to Andy Dalton, Palmer’s former Bengals assistant-turned-Raiders head coach Hue Jackson and his team were buyers. Palmer had two forgettable years in Oakland, however. He played in just nine games in 2011, going 4-5, and then went 4-11 as a starter in 2012. Palmer did resurrect his career with four solid seasons in five years with Arizona, including a 13-3 Pro Bowl campaign in 2015, but there were no vintage performances for the Raiders.

9. Brad Johnson to Washington for a first, second and third (1999)

After swinging-and-missing on Heath Shuler and enduring a brief Gus Frerotte/Trent Green carousel, Washington thought it found its man in Johnson, Warren Moon’s backup in Minnesota. Johnson did have a Pro Bowl first season in Washington, but Dan Snyder played fantasy football the next offseason and wanted Jeff George to be the guy. Johnson was out after just two years and went to Tampa Bay, where he helped win a Super Bowl. Minnesota used that first-round pick to draft Culpepper, who before suffering a devastating knee injury was an MVP candidate. Washington still hasn’t found a franchise quarterback.

8. Carson Wentz to Colts for a conditional second, third (2021)

Philadelphia’s prized quarterback was an MVP candidate in 2017 until he blew out his knee late that season, and Wentz never got his groove back after watching Nick Foles lead the Eagles to a Super Bowl victory. His erratic play upon his return didn’t scare off the Colts, though. They thought a reunion with former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, then Indianapolis’ head coach, would help Wentz return to form. But modest production during a mediocre 9-8 campaign in 2021 caused owner Jim Irsay to sour on Wentz after one season. The Colts did talk Washington into giving up two third-rounders and a swapped second-rounder for Wentz in 2022. But they sure could have used the picks that netted the Eagles DeVonta Smith, A.J. Brown and Jalen Carter.

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7. Drew Bledsoe to Bills for a first (2002)

Tom Brady’s meteoric rise made Bledsoe, the No. 1 pick in 1993, expendable in the 2001 offseason. In a display of hubris, Bill Belichick traded Bledsoe within the division, and the Bills eventually found out why. Bledsoe went 8-8, 6-10 and 9-7 as their starter while throwing 55 touchdowns and 43 interceptions, with no playoff appearances.

6. Rob Johnson to Bills for a first and fourth (1998)

The Bills’ decision to trade for Bledsoe was an attempt to atone for a previous transgression — the decision to send a first- and fourth-round pick to Jacksonville for Johnson, a 1995 fourth-round pick who went 1-0 as a starter for the Jaguars while appearing in just eight games. Johnson was named the starting quarterback for Buffalo after signing a five-year, $25 million contract, but he went just 9-17 in four seasons.

5. Brett Favre to Packers for a first (1992)

Unlike the previous deals cited here, in which teams gambled foolishly and paid dearly for bad trades, this is an example of a team not understanding the talent it had in hand. The Falcons drafted Favre in the 1991 second round, much to the dismay of then-head coach Jerry Glanville. Favre’s first NFL pass went for a pick six and he attempted only three other passes the rest of his rookie season. The Falcons then shipped the future Hall of Famer to Green Bay for the 17th pick of the 1992 draft, and the rest is history.


Rick Mirer was a Notre Dame star but NFL bust at quarterback. (Scott Halleran/Allsport)

4. Rick Mirer to Bears for a first (1997)

The second pick of the 1993 draft, Mirer sorely disappointed in Seattle, going 20-31 while throwing 41 touchdowns and 56 interceptions in four seasons. For some reason, Chicago thought the former Notre Dame star was worthy of a first-round pick in 1997. But Mirer went 0-3 as a starter after throwing zero touchdowns and six interceptions. The Bears granted his request for a release the following offseason.

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3. Chris Chandler to Buccaneers for a first (1990)

The Buccaneers made the regrettable decision to essentially give Steve Young to the 49ers in 1987 and drafted his replacement, Vinny Testaverde, first overall. But after just two seasons, the Bucs sent the second pick to Indianapolis for Chandler, who had gone 10-6 in two seasons with the Colts. Chandler wound up going 0-6 in two seasons with the Buccaneers.

2. Jeff George to Falcons for two firsts and a third (1994)

Drafted No. 1 by Indianapolis in 1990, George boasted a big arm but posted a 14-35 record while throwing 41 touchdowns and 46 interceptions in four seasons. Convinced a bad Colts roster was to blame, the Falcons shipped a boatload of picks to Indianapolis in 1994, two years after trading Favre. George did help Atlanta end a four-year playoff drought in 1995. But he clashed with head coach June Jones and went 16-19 with 50 touchdowns and 32 interceptions before signing with Oakland following the 1996 season.

1. Russell Wilson to Denver for two firsts, two seconds, a fifth and three players (including QB Drew Lock) (2022)

Believing they had a Super Bowl-caliber roster that lacked just a quarterback, the Broncos mortgaged the future with draft picks, players and obscene cap space to get Wilson, a nine-time Pro Bowl selection with a Lombardi Trophy to his name. Then-head coach Nathaniel Hackett — Aaron Rodgers’ former offensive coordinator in Green Bay — was supposed to help Wilson extend his career.

But Wilson’s best days clearly are behind him. In 2022, he completed a career-worst 60.5 percent of his passes and threw just 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions as the Broncos went 5-12. Hackett was fired after 15 games. Sean Payton landed the Broncos head coaching job in February 2023, and brashly pinned the blame for Wilson and the Broncos’ struggles on the departed Hackett. But midway through the season, Payton had soured on Wilson and he and the Broncos threatened to bench the quarterback if he didn’t agree to rework his contract. Wilson refused and remained the starter until the final two weeks of the season.

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He did post a better record in 2023 (7-8) and completion percentage (66.4), but it wasn’t until Payton switched to a run-heavy attack to reduce Wilson’s workload that Denver’s offense started to improve. Wilson finished the season with a career-low 3,070 passing yards to go with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Now he’s looking for another fresh start, and the Broncos will try to rebuild without premium draft picks and limited cap space.

(Top photos of Carson Palmer, Russell Wilson and Carson Wentz: Streeter Lecka, Dustin Bradford and Andy Lyons / Getty Images)


Kyle C. Garrison

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