NFL Quarterbacks Under the Most Pressure to Perform in 2015

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyContributor IJune 11, 2015

NFL Quarterbacks Under the Most Pressure to Perform in 2015

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    Richard Lipski/Associated Press

    The microscope that NFL quarterbacks play under is more intense than any other position in sports. As the game has evolved to feature more pass-heavy offenses, the emphasis on finding a franchise quarterback is as big as ever. In some circumstances, teams are at the breaking point and must find out whether their quarterback is worth the continued investment moving forward.

    The quarterbacks with the most pressure are the ones trying to live up to big contracts. Teams build in early-outs in case the player fails to improve or become the franchise star. Entering 2015, six quarterbacks in particular are facing a huge amount of pressure to perform well, and if they don't, then they could be moved before the 2016 season.

    All of these quarterbacks have shown significant talent at some point in their recent careers but, for one reason or another, have their organizations wondering about their futures. Whether due to injuries or underwhelming production, the next six quarterbacks are potentially facing the most important year in their careers yet.

    How do you think these quarterbacks will respond this season? Make sure you leave your thoughts in the comments section.

Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Despite showing promise that he was turning his career around in 2013, Cutler is facing a major test this season with the bad taste of his erratic 2014 play and albatross contract lingering. Cutler’s ability to impress another new coaching staff could decide whether he stays in Chicago for another season or not.

    After the 2015 season, Cutler can be designated as a June 1 release, which would save the Bears about $80 million from 2016-2020, per Over The Cap.

    Cutler’s biggest issues are consistency and turnovers. He threw a career-high 28 touchdowns in 15 games last season, but he also had 18 interceptions. 

    At 32 years old, it’s probably not fair to expect Cutler to radically change. But cutting his interceptions down a little can go a long ways. Chicago has a veteran-led roster now, which should ease Cutler's leadership responsibilities. 

Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers

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    George Nikitin/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers smartly structured Colin Kaepernick’s massive $114 million contract to have a fairly cheap escape hatch after 2015. If Kaepernick struggles again this season, the team can decide to move on, taking on a $7 million cap hit in 2016 if need be. That may seem harsh, as Kaepernick is only 27 years old, but the 49ers roster is no longer built to carry him.

    When all went wrong in 2014, Kaepernick floundered, averaging just 210.6 passing yards per game (25th out of 33 qualified quarterbacks). A four-year starter at Nevada and now entering his fourth year starting for San Francisco, Kaepernick is likely the quarterback he will always be. Unless he can overhaul his footwork and greatly increase his accuracy, the pressure could be too much for him.

    If Kaepernick thrives this year, his outlook will be much brighter. He’ll have at least three new starters along the offensive line, a new running back and a new head coach to work with.

Eli Manning, New York Giants

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    At 34 years old, Eli Manning has a fascinating career to look back on. He’s had the highest of highs, winning two thrilling Super Bowls. But Manning has also been bad for several seasons in between the great years.

    Under first-year offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, Manning looked refreshed and as efficient as ever. He reduced his interception total to 14, while throwing for 30 touchdowns. His completion percentage was a career-best 63.1 percent in a less vertical offense.

    But Manning is in the last year of his deal, and the team hasn’t put up a winning season since 2012. With head coach Tom Coughlin potentially nearing retirement, the Giants could choose to restart at both head coach and quarterback if Manning has a bad season.

Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Armed with one of the best rosters in the NFL, the Cincinnati Bengals were hoping quarterback Andy Dalton would become a lethal passer who could maximize the talent around him. Dalton was cerebral and efficient at TCU, but he’s so far been mediocre in the NFL. His inability to improve much in his four years starting is a major concern.

    Dalton’s limitations reading a defense and creating big plays has held the Bengals back every postseason. They have been unable to overcome his weaknesses, and they reduced his passing attempts by 105 in 2014 seemingly in hopes the roster would carry him.

    That’s not to say Dalton is bad, but he is the definition of mediocre in today’s NFL, and that’s not good enough. Dalton’s mammoth $96 million contract can be escaped after this season for a $7.2 million cap hit, or he can be designated as a June 1 cut to save about $73 million from 2016-2020, per Over The Cap. That’s a decision the Bengals must think long and hard about.

Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Under head coach Andy Reid, the Kansas City Chiefs have tried to build a defense-first, run-heavy team. Quarterback Alex Smith has taken care of the ball and thrown for a high completion percentage, including no more than seven interceptions in each season while with the Chiefs.

    The Chiefs splurged on Smith’s services before the 2014 season, giving him a four-year, $68 million extension. That deal could be disastrous if Smith doesn’t start creating more plays outside of the base offense. Smith has proven to be limited, throwing zero touchdowns to a receiver last year.

    It’s difficult to compete for a Super Bowl without a quarterback who can produce on third downs. Smith hasn’t been that player to this point, but he’s getting paid as if he is.

    If Smith struggles in 2015, the Chiefs would be able to escape his contract by designating him as a June 1 cut. This would save about $37 million from 2016-2018 and also allow the Chiefs to groom a more explosive quarterback than Smith.

Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins

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    Richard Lipski/Associated Press

    The youngest quarterback on this list has yet to be paid. Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is looking to rehabilitate his knee and image. The pressure is high, though, as his contract will enter an option year in 2016.

    If Griffin struggles to show that he can be an elite quarterback, the Redskins could move on without the former No. 2 overall pick. He needs help to reach his previous status, though. Washington allowed a ridiculous 58 sacks in 2014, which cannot continue for any quarterback to succeed.

    Griffin’s health will be a major reason for his success or failure. It’s impossible to forget his incredible rookie season, but there’s no guarantee he’ll ever return to that form. That’s why this season is critical for Griffin, as he must prove he can be the great player he once was.

    Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.