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To stay or go? Middle tier quarterbacks struggling

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There is nothing worse as an NFL fan than rooting for a team without a franchise quarterback. That is, unless you root for a team with the wrong franchise quarterback.

Matthew Stafford's benching on Sunday against Arizona highlighted the struggling middle class at quarterback. Colin Kaepernick and Ryan Tannehill's careers have stagnated not long after signing new contracts. Alex Smith's limitations have shown up more than ever in Kansas City this season. Sam Bradford's start in Philadelphia makes Mark Sanchez look like Randall Cunningham. Peyton Manning took a big pay cut in the offseason, and his play this season shows why.

The quarterbacks mentioned above are generally paid very well, but not in the same tier financially as players like Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Tony Romo, Russell Wilson, and Cam Newton. It raises an interesting question for each team. Is their guy good enough to keep in 2016?

Let's take a look at what the future could hold for each struggling middle class quarterback.

Not going anywhere


Matthew Stafford: Lions coach Jim Caldwell felt like he had to send a message to Stafford after two early interceptions Sunday against Arizona. Caldwell warned Stafford at halftime that another pick would result in the most embarrassing moment of his seven-year career. Yep, he was benched for Dan Orlovsky.

Last year's 11-win season covered up the fact that Stafford took a step back in 2014 under Caldwell and first-time coordinator Joe Lombardi. He doesn't look like a fit for Lombardi's Saints-like precision offense. Stafford still struggles at some of the pre-snap and blitz recognition parts of the job that the best veterans master.

Stafford has had a similar career to Jay Cutler, with little evident progress. Now he's starting to get the same heat as Cutler. Yet we still don't think there's a chance Stafford is going anywhere soon. Stafford is signed through 2017, and due $33.5 million over the next two years. He received a huge signing bonus when he inked his deal in 2013.

If things don't turn around this season, we'd expect a different offensive coordinator in Detroit next year. But it's hard to imagine them giving up on Stafford's big arm. The team is built around him, right or wrong.

Alex Smith: This was a nightmare season in Kansas City even before Jamaal Charles was injured. A struggling defense has exposed Smith's limitations throwing the ball down the field. He's ranked second to last in ESPN's QBR metric, and 25th by ProFootball Focus. And he's not going anywhere because his $14.1 million salary in 2016 is fully guaranteed. This Andy Reid-Smith combination is what the Chiefs will keep rolling with, but they could really use a draft pick at quarterback to develop.

Ryan Tannehill: One of Mike Tannenbaum's first acts as Executive Vice President was to give Tannehill a huge contract that guaranteed his base salaries through 2018. The coaching staff is going to change in Miami, and the next hire will certainly be geared towards maximizing Tannehill's strengths. (Anything but throwing deep to the outside.)

Future up in the air


Colin Kaepernick: His performance on Sunday night will quiet the panic surrounding Kaepernick, but there's no doubt that he's playing for his future this season. When Kaepernick signed his extension in 2014, it made it very easy for the 49ers to get out of the deal after any season. As ProFootballTalk noted over the weekend, Kaepernick's 2016 salary is not guaranteed until April 1 next year. That gives the 49ers the chance to survey the free agent/trade market after the new league year opens before making a decision on Kaepernick. They could also use the time to get a handle on how they want to attack the 2016 draft at quarterback.

Kaepernick is "only" due $11.9 million next season, so he's not prohibitive to keep. His play for the rest of the season will determine a lot here, and the odds are that he stays for at least one more season. But the 49ers figure to be in the market for other options.

Jay Cutler: The Bears would have already traded Cutler if any team was willing to take on his contract in the offseason. No one bit. $10 million of his $16 million salary in 2016 is already guaranteed, which would make him tricky to deal again. The Bears are stuck in quarterback purgatory because of it. While Cutler's toughness this season has impressed his teammates, it remains to be seen if offensive coordinator Adam Gase can be the first Bears playcaller to get consistent play from him. We can imagine a scenario where Cutler plays just well enough to inspire interest elsewhere, with the Bears willing to move on.

Peyton Manning: It feels strange to put Manning in this group, but his play this season warrants it. The Broncos are struggling to score and Manning is forcing too many passes. It's like Manning is trying to re-calibrate how he should play the position with a diminished arm in a new offense, and he still hasn't figured out the formula. It's led to wayward deep passes and consistent mental mistakes. The Broncos were ranked 30th in passing by FootballOutsiders' metrics before failing to score a touchdown in Oakland Monday.

Manning took a $4 million paycut to his contract in the offseason, an unprecedented development for a player of his stature. That showed a willingingness by the Broncos to move on from Manning if he didn't play ball. He has one more year on his salary at $19 million and it's safe to say he's not getting that much money. If his play continues at this level, it's hard to imagine the Broncos bringing him back to Denver at all. Don't count out Manning improving dramatically during this season. That's probably what it will take to see him still starting games for the Broncos at age 40.

Sam Bradford: The Eagles invested plenty in Bradford via trade, but he's going to need to play better to be back next season. His decision to turn down a long-term deal before the year from Philadelphia could turn out as poorly as guard Evan Mathis' request to be released by the team. Chip Kelly is not afraid to move roster pieces around, and there's no telling at this stage how patient the Eagles organization will be with Kelly. This one is way too early to call, but it's safe to say Bradford hasn't shown enough yet to be given a big new deal.

The X-Factor


Drew Brees doesn't fit naturally into this column because of his first-tier contract. I'm including him because we are forecasting 2016 at the quarterback position, and he's undeniably a wild card to consider for interested teams. We have a long way to go before the Saints completely rebuild after this year, but it's possible teams could inquire what it would cost to get Brees' big contract out of New Orleans. He's due $18.75 million and the Saints would only take a moderate cap hit to trade him.

As Saints fans know, finding your next franchise quarterback isn't the easiest thing to do. That's why the struggles of the middle tier quarterbacks above qualify as a "good problem" to have. It's certainly better than what Bill O'Brien is dealing with in Houston.

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