Broncos trading for Jets QB Zach Wilson ahead of NFL draft, sources say

In a quarterback-as-commodity world, the Broncos picked up a distressed asset on Monday.

They did so when they agreed to acquire Zach Wilson, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 draft, from the New York Jets in a swap of late-round picks.

The strategy: Buy low. Then see what happens.

The cost: A sixth-round pick (No. 203 overall) in this week’s NFL draft for Wilson and a seventh-rounder (No. 257). The teams are set to split Wilson’s $5.5 million salary for 2024.

The reality: In the short term, this trade is every bit about what it does not mean as what it does.

It doesn’t mean Sean Payton and company are out of the quarterback market in this week’s draft.

It doesn’t mean August is guaranteed to be Wilson vs. Jarrett Stidham for the starting job.

All it means is that Payton thinks Wilson, 25, has some room to grow.

Buy low. Then see what happens.

Certainly, this is the buzziest acquisition the Broncos have made this offseason, but it’s in keeping with how Payton and general manager George Paton set out to operate.

The Broncos added a player they think can help in some way at a palatable price without blocking out the sunlight for a young player who is either drafted later this week or emerges this summer.

It’s been Denver’s approach across the roster this offseason and at quarterback, too.

The Broncos watched as player after player came off the board in free agency, even though none besides Kirk Cousins and Baker Mayfield are surefire starters. They watched as several others got traded.

“We talked about all these quarterbacks. Some just weren’t great fits for what we’re trying to do,” Paton said last month at the NFL’s spring ownership meetings. “We didn’t just want to add one to add one. Then you multiply your problem.”

They’ve been working on this trade for Wilson since before then, a source told The Denver Post, keeping in communication with New York over recent weeks.

The hope, naturally, is that Payton can help Wilson harness some of his natural talent and get rid of some of the bad habits that led to too many turnovers, too many incompletions and too many sacks in New York. Wilson’s 57% career completion percentage and 10.2% sack percentage are clear indicators that he too often didn’t know where to go with the football.

Payton’s betting he can help provide answers for a quarterback who’s still young. Wilson, after all, is just six months older than draft prospect Bo Nix out of Oregon.

In this reclamation project, Payton is also practicing what he preached last fall when admired the way former Green Bay general managers Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson regularly collected quarterbacks regardless of what their depth charts looked like.

“They were drafting quarterbacks as a commodity long before anyone else in the league was,” Payton said in October. “… That was pretty smart business relative to how important that position is.”

That’s what this move is. Quarterback as commodity.

In the absolute best-case scenario, Wilson flourishes or at least improves and becomes something like the 2024 version of Mayfield. To be sure, Mayfield, the No. 1 pick in 2018, had more NFL success on his ledger than Wilson does currently when Mayfield signed a one-year contract with Tampa Bay last year. He too was at a crossroads and he parlayed a flier of a deal into a long-term extension with the Buccaneers with the best season of his career.

In the worst-case scenario, Payton decides Wilson doesn’t have what it takes and he doesn’t make the 53-man roster in August. That would cost the Broncos 54 spots at the back of a draft that analysts say lacks depth and about $2.75 million.

In the middle is a range of outcomes from low-end starter to quality No. 2 to being among a group that gets beat out by a rookie.

It’s a move that closes no doors and opens at least one, even if it looks unlikely from here that Wilson and the Broncos walk hand-in-hand through it and into years of bliss.

Buy low. Then see what happens.

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