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Rams could be inspiration for Broncos to bench, potentially release Russell Wilson

What the Rams have proven this season that could inspire teams like Broncos, Cardinals to release high-paid QBs

NFL: Denver Broncos at Los Angeles Rams Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Rams used the slogan “Model the Way” in training camp this season, but maybe the message was actually meant for other teams. Because it’s “the way” that the Rams have gone about their last three mini-rebuilds since hiring Sean McVay in 2017 that should inspire copycats and L.A.’s most recent strategy could be what leads teams like the Broncos and Cardinals to release high-paid quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray in spite of their massive dead money cap hits.

The Rams completely transformed their roster building strategy in 2023, absorbing a huge accumulation of dead money cap hits due to trading and releasing some of the biggest names on the team, and where has it gotten them?

At 8-7 and in strong contention to win a wild card berth a year after suffering through the worst season in the McVay era.

It could be that L.A.’s success in the face of $80 million in dead money, taking up over one-third of the salary cap, is what inspires other teams to face the consequences of contracts that they regret sooner rather than later. The Rams ripped off the band-aid with Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, and Brandin Cooks, parting with each of them not long after coming to agreements on long-term contracts. They did that and still won the Super Bowl in part thanks to those actions.

When the 2022 season was over, McVay was looking at a situation in which the Rams would need to cut costs and boil down the roster to only three untouchable players and still somehow get better following a 5-12 campaign.

So far, McVay chose right to stay with the Rams and to test himself with such a unique challenge. Could it be what leads to other franchises absorbing huge dead cap hits and attempting to get better by using subtraction as the addition?

Broncos bench Russell Wilson

Even though they’re still alive for the playoffs—and the division—with two games to go, the Broncos decided to bench Russell Wilson and cited the need for a “spark” by switching to backup Jarrett Stidham. Another reason reported, one that seems plausible, is that Denver wants to keep open the option of cutting or trading Wilson after the season. This is what happened to Derek Carr on the Raiders last season, also benched with two games left to make sure he didn’t get an injury guarantee.

If Wilson were to get hurt this season, his 2025 salary could become fully guaranteed.

Though some speculate that Wilson’s dead money hit is too absurdly large for a team to consider cutting him without a post-June 1 designation, there is some precedent for franchises that are able to succeed with over $80 million in dead money.

The Rams and Buccaneers.

The only team with more dead money this season than the Rams is Tampa Bay, with a little over $81 million. Along with L.A., the Bucs are the biggest surprise in the NFC this season.

That’s over $80 million in cap space that each of these franchises are paying for players who are not on the team anymore. In the Rams case, that includes $21 million for Allen Robinson, almost $20 million for Jalen Ramsey, and $19 million for Bobby Wagner, among others.

It’s true, releasing Wilson will come at a huge cost. But signing Wilson came at an even bigger cost and now the head coach—who will have all the power—says that the Broncos have a better shot at the playoffs without him. It seems unlikely they’ll ever reconcile.

It could be the Rams inspiring the Broncos to consider trading or cutting Wilson after the season. Even in the worst case scenario, Denver could get under the salary cap and field a team, just as L.A. had to do, and they could theoretically be back to normal in two years. Sean Payton knows plenty about managing the worst cap situation in the NFL thanks to his time in New Orleans.

They probably even started the trend of benching “franchise quarterbacks” late in a competitive year: Remember, two years before the Raiders benched Carr prior to his release, the Rams essentially benched Goff for John Wolford at the end of the 2020 season. It was only Wolford’s head injury in the playoffs that led to Goff’s return, but he was still traded off of the team less than a month later.

Cardinals replacing Kyler Murray?

The next-worst contract situation (both still better than Deshaun Watson though) is in the NFC West. Outwardly, the Cardinals have pledged their allegiance to Kyler Murray, including new head coach Jonathan Gannon. Internally, the thought of drafting his replacement must get harder to ignore as Arizona spirals closer and closer to securing the number two pick. (The Panthers have all but sewn up the number one, which they’ll be sending to the Bears.)

If the Cardinals release Murray, the cap hit is still historically bad but slightly better than Wilson’s: $81.5 million.

Releasing Wilson and Murray is no longer farfetched. In Denver’s case, that seems to be what will happen unless a team agrees to trade for Wilson if the Broncos pay a large portion of his salary. In Arizona’s, though they have not benched Murray for the same reasons that Denver has benched Wilson, the current Cardinals regime similarly has no attachment to the quarterback. The head coach and GM did not draft or sign him and he’s a specific type of quarterback fit for a certain type of leadership.

The Cardinals and Broncos could both be staring at the L.A. Rams and convincing themselves that not only can they absorb one year of the worst case scenario, they might even be better right now because of it.

The Rams did it

When the team moved to Los Angeles in 2016 and then hired McVay in 2017, they became the most aggressive franchise on the market. That helped the Rams go from 4-12 to 11-5 in McVay’s first season, then reach the Super Bowl in his second. After the ink was dry on new contracts but two seasons into post-Super Bowl mediocrity, the Rams took an even more aggressive approach by trading Goff and two first round picks to the Lions for Matthew Stafford.

While some supported the move, many criticized Les Snead and management not only because the skeptics didn’t believe in Stafford to that degree, but also because the Rams were giving up on a quarterback who hadn’t even started playing on his extension yet. Think of where Goff ranks in the league over the past two seasons and consider that a franchise got rid of him when he was 27!

Teams just don’t move on from 27-year-old quarterbacks who had been to a Super Bowl, proven to have some success, and had just gotten paid. That was an unprecedented risk made by Snead and the front office and it doesn’t really get talked often enough about, as if now “everybody” would do a trade like that.

But that is influenced with hindsight that the Rams won the Super Bowl, when in reality L.A. had been ridiculed for pushing all-in with Stafford, and then later midseason acquisitions of Odell Bechkam and Von Miller.

Not only did the Rams inspire teams to trade for veteran quarterback upgrades — like Wilson and Watson — they also helped start a trend of eating huge dead money cap hits and surviving the consequences. The trade for Matthew Stafford has not been given enough credit for what it accomplished and how much the Rams have influenced their competition in recent years.

Now the next step could be inspiring a team that tried to copy their deal for Stafford — the Denver Broncos — by releasing the veteran quarterback who they traded two first round picks to get and like the Rams, trying to get better by moving on quickly.

I still doubt this plan will usually work as well as it has for the Rams.