As hard as it may be to believe, it’s been a full decade since Peyton Manning delivered an unprecedented second act to an otherworldly career.
It was the 2012 offseason when the Indianapolis Colts franchise released him in an emotional goodbye months after he underwent neck surgery.
What Manning did after changing teams represents one of the most historic individual comebacks in NFL history.
He galvanized the Denver Broncos, regained his health and All-Pro form, and led them to a Super Bowl victory in his final NFL game after a previous Super Bowl appearance before retiring following his 18th season.
But what was unthinkable then has become commonplace – and wildly successful – now. Each of the last two Super Bowl champions had star quarterbacks that changed teams the previous offseason.
And based on the seismic shifts of the last six months, don’t be surprised if the streak runs to three.
Multiple high-profile passers changed teams, including the Broncos going all-in to trade for Russell Wilson from the Seattle Seahawks.
The Wilson trade, along with Deshaun Watson being traded to the Cleveland Browns, Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts, Baker Mayfield from the Browns to the Carolina Panthers and Carson Wentz being traded to the Washington Commanders after washing out with the Colts are the biggest moves in a quarterback carousel that nearly included Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers before they ultimately remained with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Green Bay Packers, respectively.
The ripple effects of the changes that unfolded and how these quarterbacks ultimately perform in their new settings will be among the most-watched moves of an action-packed NFL offseason.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how some of these guys do in their second chapter,” Manning said in a telephone interview.
So is the rest of the NFL, especially the Broncos and Browns after their huge investments in Wilson and Watson.
Here’s a look at what’s on the line and how Wilson, Ryan, Watson, and Wentz fit with their new teams:
Broncos’ trade for Wilson
Tired of mediocre quarterback play for years, the Broncos went all-in to land Wilson after trying unsuccessfully to lure Rodgers away from the Packers.
Broncos general manager George Paton traded first-round draft picks in 2022 and 2023, a second-round pick in 2023, and a fifth-round draft pick in 2022 to the Seahawks. The package also included quarterback Drew Lock, tight end Noah Fant, and defensive tackle Shelby Harris going to Seattle.
Yes, it was a lot to give up.
Yes, the Broncos, otherwise built for success with a talented defense and an offense dotted with good skill players, needed Wilson’s talent and expertise.
The hope for the Broncos is that Wilson will transform them into a winner and give them the kind of capable quarterback play they’ve lacked since the Manning era.
This is a huge upgrade from an inconsistent Lock. The Broncos’ bet on Wilson making them a contender in the ultra-competitive AFC, which features Kansas City Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes and the Bills’ Josh Allen, instantly created relevance and conversation about a franchise that was just sold for an NFL-record $4.65 billion.
Wilson earned one Super Bowl title with the Seahawks – beating Manning and the Broncos – and made it back to the Super Bowl the following year.
Now, Wilson, 33, is chasing another title.
“It’s been a blessing just to come here, just to come to an amazing city like Denver, to be a part of it with so many amazing teammates and great coaching staff,” Wilson told Denver reporters.
“But also, once the trade was going to happen, I said, ‘Hey, listen, I want to make sure that I go to a city that wants to win. I want to make sure I that I go to a team that wants to win. And I want to go to a city that knows how to win.’ And all those three things were checked off the box here in Denver and so I think we’ve got a chance.”
What the Broncos lacked for years since Manning’s retirement was a proven quarterback. They went 7-10 a year ago with Lock and Teddy Bridgewater.
With Wilson, despite missing three games last season with a finger injury, they get a quarterback who’s still a top-notch performer and a precise passer.
He passed for 3,113 yards and 25 touchdowns with six interceptions last season in 14 games.
How Wilson collaborates with an imaginative play-caller in Nathaniel Hackett, Rodgers’ former offensive coordinator, should be one of the most intriguing plot lines to watch around the NFL.
Browns’ trade for Watson
The Browns made one of the riskiest and most controversial moves in NFL history this offseason.
They traded three first-round draft picks for Watson along with a third-round pick and two fourth-round selections to acquire the three-time Pro Bowl passer from the Houston Texans.
And they immediately signed Watson to an NFL-record fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract.
The Browns did this despite Watson being investigated for sexual assault and sexual misconduct, though he was not charged by two Texas grand juries, and facing more than 20 civil lawsuits from female massage therapists alleging a pattern of inappropriate behavior. In late June, Watson reached a confidential settlement with 20 of his 24 accusers.
While Watson has maintained his innocence, the NFL is poised to potentially suspend him for the entire season under the league’s personal conduct policy. An NFL spokesman said that the settlements have “no impact on the collectively bargained disciplinary process.”
When the Browns acquired Watson, they were hopeful of having him play at least a portion of the NFL season even though they did add Jacoby Brissett as a placeholder.
Now, everything is in doubt with Watson. The trade can’t be undone. And they can’t release Watson, which they have no current plans to do, without incurring huge financial consequences.
As much as Watson upgrades the Browns, who have a strong running back tandem in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, a good wide receiver in Amari Cooper, a strong offensive line, and elite defensive end Myles Garrett, the AFC North franchise is enduring major public relations fallout for adding him to the roster.
Watson’s status is expected to be resolved by the NFL and disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson, a former district judge, before training camp.
“Like I said, I never assaulted anyone or I never harassed anyone or I never disrespected anyone,” Watson said during a press conference. “I never forced anyone to do anything.”
The NFL has a history of suspending players even if they’re not charged with a crime – including former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott,
Watson has met with Lisa Friel, the NFL’s special counsel for personal conduct policy investigations. She’s a former chief of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office’s sex crimes prosecution unit and was hired full-time by the league after the Ray Rice domestic violence situation.
“I can’t control that,” Watson said regarding the disciplinary process. “I met with the NFL a couple weeks ago, and I did everything they asked me to do. I answered every question truthfully that the NFL asked me. I spent hours with the people that they brought down. And that’s all I can do is just be honest and tell them exactly what happened. I know they have a job, and so I have to respect that. And that’s what we wanted to do is cooperate. And they have to make a decision [that’s] best for the league.”
Colts’ trade for Ryan
The Colts didn’t acquire a long-term solution under center when they added Ryan after trading a third-round draft pick to the Atlanta Falcons to acquire the former NFL Most Valuable Player.
The Colts, especially owner Jim Irsay, were absolutely fed up with Carson Wentz’s maddening inconsistencies and poor decision-making.
Getting Ryan gives them some competence at quarterback for an offense headlined by star running back Jonathan Taylor.
While Ryan is no Matthew Stafford, who led the Los Angeles Rams to a Super Bowl last season after being acquired in a trade from the Detroit Lions, this move gives the Colts something they felt they lacked with Wentz: hope.
Ryan is reliable and steady with plenty of experience.
The Colts, at the least, expect to be in the playoffs with Ryan.
Colts offensive coordinator Marcus Brady called Ryan “a breath of fresh air.”
Defensive lineman DeForest Buckner compared Ryan to former Colts quarterback Philip Rivers.
The respect factor can’t be underrated with Ryan.
“I cannot even tell you how refreshing he is,” Colts coach Frank Reich said. “Very strong opinion, but also very engaging, but very humble, like very humble. Very humble but very strong. It’s just good. It’s a really good dynamic, very professional in every way. It’s just a collaboration, but he also understands he’s coming in and learning a new offense, and he feels that right now, he feels it.”
How happy are the Colts to have added Ryan?
“I can’t say enough about Matt Ryan,” Irsay said. “There’s no way I can sit here and explain to you, unless you look at [general manager] Chris [Ballard] and Frank and different people in this organization’s eyes, and see the difference that goes on right now because of Matt Ryan being in this building. His professionalism, his stature still at 36 and coming in here, and we really are fortunate.”
Having Ryan after the Falcons took a shot at trading for Watson gives the Colts a quarterback they’re comfortable with.
They couldn’t say the same about Wentz, who has failed with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Colts.
Panthers’ trade for Mayfield
A change of scenery was definitely in order for Mayfield. The relationship between him and coach Kevin Stefanski and teammates soured last season and his play declined as he dealt with injuries that included him needing an offseason surgery for his non-throwing shoulder.
The former top overall pick from Oklahoma was traded to the Panthers in exchange for a conditional 2024 fifth-round pick that can become a fourth-round selection if he plays 70 percent of the snaps.
Mayfield joins Carolina after a disappointing, injury-riddled season for the former Heisman Trophy winner.
Although the Browns have agreed to pay $10.5 million of Mayfield’s $18.898 million salary with the Panthers picking up roughly $5 million of his compensation, he has accepted a $3.5 million cut in pay, according to a league source. That was the final obstacle to finalizing the deal and he can make it back with incentives Mayfield, who is 29-30 all-time as a starter, is expected to compete with Sam Darnold for the starting job.
Mayfield started 59 of his 60 games and completed 1,185 of 1,924 passes (61.6%) for 14,125 yards with 92 touchdowns and 56 interceptions. He ranks third in team history in passing yards and fourth in touchdown passes. Mayfield is the only player in Browns history to throw for 3,000 yards in four consecutive seasons.
“Baker Mayfield infused our organization with tenacity and grit during his time as our starting quarterback,” Browns general manager Andrew Berry said in a statement. “Baker’s competitiveness, toughness and ability to persevere were all characteristics that endeared him to our city as well as his teammates. He will always have a unique place in Browns history for what he accomplished and we wish him well as he continues his career.”
Commanders’ trade for Wentz
The Commanders are betting that another fresh start for Wentz will pay off with major dividends.
They flipped second-round draft picks with the Colts, picked up a seventh-round pick, and sent Indianapolis a third-round draft pick plus a conditional third-round selection for the former Eagles’ first-round draft pick.
Wentz has been the subject of heavy criticism, much of it deserved, for what happened in Philadelphia and Indianapolis.
As puzzling as Wentz can be, frequently forcing throws into heavy traffic and being indecisive in the pocket at other times, he still has upside.
The Commanders, picking up Wentz after an ugly divorce from the Colts and inheriting his three-year, $81.7 million contract, are his third team in the past three seasons.
Wentz, 29, gets a clean slate with the Commanders and he’s back in the NFC East where he helped them get to a Super Bowl before getting hurt and watching as Nick Foles led Philadelphia to its lone Vince Lombardi trophy in franchise history.
“For me as a quarterback, I just want to win,” Wentz told Washington reporters. “Talking to everybody in this organization, everybody wants the same thing,” Wentz told Abraham. “I feel like there’s definitely a priority, a clear vision on how we’re going to get there. I think it’s a cool opportunity to do something special, put our best foot forward, and be who we want to be. I look forward to being a part of that.”
When Wentz joined the Commanders, he acknowledged some of his shortcomings in past settings.
“I’ll be the first to say that I’m not perfect. I’m always trying to be a better person, man, teammate, husband, father,” Wentz said. “At the same time, I feel like I had amazing relationships with guys that I still stay in touch with in Philly and Indy. Leadership will be natural, especially as you get older, you change a little bit, you add nuggets of wisdom from other people. I think it comes down to being intentional with people and being the same. As a leader, you need to be the same in the good, the bad, and the ugly. I feel I’ve done that and I’m going to continue to do that.”
Wentz is due $28 million this year. There is no guaranteed money in his deal after 2022.
They can cut ties with him at no cost after this season if this doesn’t work out.
“I just look forward to earning everybody’s respect and hopefully putting an awesome product out there, giving fans something to cheer about,” Wentz said. “I think the fans are going to enjoy it.”
For the Commanders, an organization saddled with multiple controversies involving embattled owner Daniel Snyder, they’re hoping that Wentz’s words have meaning this fall.