Implications of Russell Wilson's Trade to the Denver Broncos

Mar 9th 2022

Sosa Kremenjas

In an absolute shocker of a move, the Seattle Seahawks have decided to trade franchise quarterback Russell Wilson to the Denver Broncos in exchange for three veteran players and a boatload of draft picks.

This move will have a ripple effect for both the Seahawks and Broncos, but most notably, their skill position players. Seemingly, the Seahawks will enter "rebuild" or "re-tool" mode as some would call it, while the Broncos have decided to push all their chips into the middle of the table.

There are many ways to describe what the addition of Wilson to the Broncos means, but calling him a massive upgrade is an understatement. Denver did a great job building around their quarterback, compiling receivers Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, and K.J. Hamler, running back Javonte Williams, and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam to the roster. They believe they've found the final chess piece in Wilson, who has the talent, history, and ability to make it all work.

Let's dive into some of the changes headed Denver's way and what they mean for the offense.

Quarterback Upgrade

It's clear as day Wilson is a superior player to Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock. He's more efficient, effective, talented, and everything in between. But, even schematically and philosophically, Wilson operates on a different wavelength than the Lock/Bridgewater combo the Broncos deployed last season.

Bridgewater is the quintessential "Checkdown Charlie". He plays with an extremely risk-averse mindset and doesn't push the ball downfield often. Now, that can work in the NFL, but that isn't exciting when considering output for any skill position players, nor is it an environment that induces much success in the fantasy realm.

Wilson, on the other hand, neared the top of the charts — of the qualifying quarterbacks — in average completed air yards, average intended air yards, and air yards to the sticks. Some of the listed statistics, like EPA, are more all-encompassing and take into account the entirety of an offense, not just the passer. While Wilson and Bridgewater don't appear to be drastically different in some statistics, they are in their ability to push the ball downfield and in creating explosive plays.

Nathaniel Hackett Offense and Weapon Breakdown

It's worth looking at how Wilson preferred attacking defenses, in comparison to the Broncos and even the Green Bay Packers. On the surface, that may sound confusing. But, as we know, the Broncos hired a new head coach in Nathaniel Hackett. He's likely going to bring many of the concepts we saw in Green Bay over the past few seasons, but will also find ways to incorporate what Wilson is best at.

Using Sharp Football Stats, we can see the difference in how the three teams spread their targets out, how successful they were when targeting said positions, and how deep downfield their passing attempts were over the past two seasons.

Let's dive into some of the things we can deduce from this chart.

1. There shouldn't be much of a change when it comes to targeting running backs

Aaron Rodgers has targeted running backs more often than most quarterbacks over the past two seasons, but Wilson and the Broncos' rotation of signal-callers both sit at 16%. Javonte Williams (53 targets) proved to be a capable receiver in his rookie campaign and so was veteran Melvin Gordon (38 targets). The main differences are going to stem from effectiveness and where the running backs are targeted. There is no bias in this theme — the Broncos targeted the position nearly a full two yards fewer downfield in this comparison. The usage won't change much, but their efficiency could.

2. Buy all of the Broncos receivers

Luckily for Wilson, Denver is loaded with talent at the receiver position. They have varying body types, ability, and even roles. Both Sutton and Patrick present the ability to reel in contested catches and can separate. Jeudy is one of the best route runners in the sport and creates as much separation as any player at the position. Lastly, Hamler is the "take the top off the defense" vertical threat, but he's currently rehabbing a torn ACL and may not be available to start the season.

Technically speaking, Wilson has favored the receiver position in the passing game. Not only that, but he's willing to air it out downfield in hopes of creating explosive plays. Both Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf topped 900 receiving yards in each of the past three seasons, while also ranking high in air yards:

The Broncos may not have any true target hogs at the position, but they're in a vastly improved situation that could lead to improved production and efficiency.

3. Noah Fant was dispensable

The Broncos traded away a former first-round draft pick in Noah Fant in exchange for Wilson. There was more to the trade, of course, but maybe — in part — General Manager George Paton didn't feel so bad about letting Fant go because Wilson hasn't really utilized the position much in his career. If we go back all the way to 2016, the Seahawks (under Wilson) targeted the position just 20% of the time. Fant was never going to be featured in this version of the offense, and Wilson has historically never been eager to utilize them, either.

There's a second part to why the Broncos waved goodbye — Albert O. He was drafted in 2020 alongside Fant but in the fourth round. Albert O's development was visible this past season, scooping up 330 receiving yards and two touchdowns in a subpar offense. He was targeted 40 times (sixth-most on the roster) and actually led the team with an 82.5% catch rate. The second-year tight end also ranked sixth in yards after the catch per reception (min. 10 targets) and 16th in broken tackles (3), despite playing much less than his counterparts. There isn't much of a debate when it comes to which tight end is more naturally talented, but Albert O's development and ability, coupled with the fact that Wilson just doesn't utilize the position much, probably made Denver feel comfortable letting Fant go.

4. The vertical shots are coming

Whether it was Rodgers' or Hackett's doing, Green Bay loved pushing the ball downfield. Davante Adams was the best player of the bunch, but there isn't much discussion when it comes to the actual depth and overall quality of the position — Denver has much more to offer with their WR2 - WR4. Looking at Rodgers' 2021 campaign, he ranked:

  • 10th in passes travelling 10-plus yards

  • 7th in passes travelling 20-plus yards

  • 5th in passes travelling 30-plus yards

  • 6th in passes travelling 40-plus yards

  • 4th in passes travelling 50-plus yards

When we compare them to Wilson's totals, we get a much better idea of how aggressive both quarterbacks prefer to be in terms of their target depth. It's hard to compare on a 1:1 scale because Wilson didn't get to play a full season (13.5 games), yet he still ranked highly in nearly every one of those categories.

There are many reasons to be excited about this Broncos offense. Make no mistake about it — Wilson is a massive upgrade at the most important position and will afford this offense a lot more room for error. The real life implications could lead to a Super Bowl appearance, like the Los Angeles Rams just had, but the "funplications" of this offense just shot up like dogecoin a year ago.

Every receiver on the roster, including Albert O, gets a nice boost by Wilson's addition. When we consider the potential improvements under Hackett, we begin to see an offense with a clear path to becoming one of the more productive units in the league.

The NFL has become more exhilarating by way of blockbuster-like trades, and this move could be just the first domino of what feels like more to come.