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Aaron Rodgers, Mac Jones among five quarterbacks with most at stake in second half; Dallas' big decision

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today's installment covers:

But first, a look at five high-profile players with a LOT riding on the next couple months ...

If you ask veteran coaches about playing football in the months of November and December, they will quickly tell you that ballers play their best down the stretch.

Whether facing pressure to perform for a playoff contender or feeling the heat to secure standing on a franchise in transition, the most successful players find a way to raise their level of play as fall changes to winter. For some quarterbacks, the stretch run provides an opportunity to cement their status as a long-term starter or enhance their position as a hot commodity on the free-agent market.

Given the intrigue that surrounds the game's most important position as teams separate into contenders and pretenders, I believe it is the perfect time to identify the quarterbacks with the most at stake in the second half of the 2022 season. Here is my list of five.

Aaron Rodgers
Green Bay Packers · Year 18

The four-time league MVP has not played up to his lofty standard as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in NFL history. Rodgers is currently sporting the worst passer rating (89.0) and yards-per-attempt figure (6.6) of his starting career. In addition, the soon-to-be 39-year-old is on pace to tie the highest interception total of his career: 13, back in his first season as a starter in 2008. Considering Rodgers has greatly underperformed since inking a three-year, $150.8 million extension in March, the Packers could experience serious buyer's remorse if the 10-time Pro Bowler fails to turn things around before the end of the season.

Although a $99.8 million dead cap figure makes it impossible for Green Bay to even consider cutting Rodgers in 2023, a dramatic drop-off could prompt the team to look for another quarterback of the future in the 2023 NFL Draft. Such discussion could nudge the future Hall of Famer into early retirement -- if he's not already considering it himself. Kind of hard to imagine, but from the outside looking in, Rodgers just seems off this season.

Mac Jones
New England Patriots · Year 2

With Jones struggling through a sophomore slump and an ankle injury, New England has already taken an extended look at rookie fourth-rounder Bailey Zappe. Jones is back in the starting lineup for now, but it appears that he'll be fighting for his job down the stretch.

After an impressive rookie campaign where he led the Patriots to the playoffs, Jones has been maddeningly inconsistent in 2022, with questionable decisions and errant throws dotting his lowlight reel. The second-year pro's up-and-down performance has been attributed to some of the coaching changes and schematic adjustments, but Zappe's success running the offense raises eyebrows when evaluating the incumbent starter. Maybe it is just a part of the growing process for the former No. 15 overall pick, but Jones' disappointing play (SEE: 4:7 TD-to-INT ratio, 76.0 passer rating) has opened the door for a potential 2023 quarterback competition in Foxborough.

Geno Smith
Seattle Seahawks · Year 10

The journeyman has not only rewritten the narrative about his career, but he has also positioned himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the 2023 free-agent class. Smith leads the league in completion percentage (73.1), while also posting the third-highest passer rating (107.2) and a sparkling 15:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Russell who? Those numbers are better than Wilson's in his final year with Seattle -- and far better than Wilson's in 2022.

Considering Geno has surprisingly upgraded the Seahawks' quarterback position while guiding the team back into playoff contention, the 32-year-old could parlay his strong play into a hefty contract that pays him like a franchise player. While the naysayers are waiting for the clock to strike midnight on this fairy tale, the tape suggests Smith is a legitimate QB1 who simply needed the right scheme and supporting cast to accentuate his talents. If he keeps this up through the end of the season, the former second-round pick will receive a first-class paycheck.

Jimmy Garoppolo
San Francisco 49ers · Year 9

After spending his training camp in exile, Garoppolo has re-emerged as a viable QB1 on the marketplace. The 31-year-old has put up solid numbers (66.7 percent completions, 11:4 TD-to-INT ratio, 100.7 passer rating) while keeping the 49ers in the playoff chase despite a spate of injuries.

Given his winning pedigree with the squad (34-17 as San Francisco's starter) and his ability to thrive as a distributor when operating on a low pitch count (30 passes or fewer), the 49ers must make a decision on whether to continue on with the veteran or go back to the oft-injured youngster who was supposed to take over as QB1 (Trey Lance). How well Jimmy G and the team perform over the final half of the season could determine whether the impending free agent will stay in San Francisco or hit the open market.

Jared Goff
Detroit Lions · Year 7

The former No. 1 overall pick has been a pretty solid performer for the Lions since coming over from the Rams, but the rebuilding squad holds a pair of first-round picks in the 2023 draft. Goff's dead cap number of $10 million isn't entirely prohibitive in terms of potentially cutting bait after this season, but his leadership and veteran presence would be missed by a roster that is still attempting to find its way under a young regime.

With nine games left to play, Goff has a chance to audition for an extended run as the Lions' QB1 while they compare and contrast future options with the performance of the veteran. If the 28-year-old can help the Lions' offense rediscover the explosiveness that the unit displayed in the first quarter of this season, he might be able to hold onto his job for another year. If Goff finishes the 2022 campaign with a flourish, Detroit could even draft his eventual successor to serve an apprenticeship in 2023.

The BIG backfield decision in Big D

The continued emergence of Tony Pollard as a potent playmaker could make for a very interesting offseason in Dallas. The Cowboys suddenly have a couple of running backs making a case for the RB1 label as part of a dynamic rotation that has helped the team stay squarely in contention.

While the on-field product has flourished for 6-2 Dallas, with Pollard averaging 6.2 yards per carry to complement the hard-hitting runs provided by Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys must determine what to do after this season. Pollard is an impending free agent. Can Dallas afford to re-up the 25-year-old with a big-money running back -- Elliott signed a six-year, $90 million extension back in 2019 -- already on the books?

Studying the game tape, it is easy to see why so many Cowboys supporters are clamoring for Pollard to be featured more prominently in the game plan as the team's undisputed No. 1 runner on a weekly basis. The fourth-year pro has excelled as a multi-faceted playmaker this season, with 627 scrimmage yards and five touchdowns on 93 touches. Pollard has flashed outstanding vision, quickness and burst slicing through creases on the edges, with five runs of 20-plus yards to complement his robust yards-per-touch average (6.7). And with Elliott sidelined by a knee sprain in Dallas' last game -- a 49-29 win over the Bears in Week 8 -- Pollard went off with 14 carries for 131 yards and three touchdowns. Consequently, the drumbeat has grown louder for Pollard to get the lion's share of the work going forward.

But Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, a staunch supporter of the 27-year-old Elliott, isn't having it. Despite a diminishing game and declining production that does not match Zeke's hefty compensation rate, the two-time NFL rushing champion remains the owner's favorite.

"There's no argument," Jones said immediately following Pollard's career-best outing in Week 8, via The Athletic's Jon Machota. "Zeke's ability to punish, Zeke's ability to deliver, Zeke's ability, what he does for us in pass protection, and, frankly, Zeke's ability to make big plays are there, and we're going to go as Zeke goes. I really mean he's that integral to our success this year."

To be fair, Elliott was leading the team in rush yards (443 yards on 109 attempts, equaling 4.1 ypa) at the time of his injury and has a chance to play Sunday at Green Bay. Although he is no longer the dominant power runner with the capacity to single-handedly carry a team, the veteran is an A+ blocker in pass protection who also shines in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Given the importance of those traits, it is sensible to keep the all-star runner in the mix as a key contributor.

That said, the Cowboys must entertain the debate between Elliott and Pollard, given the exorbitant costs of keeping both runners in the fold. Pollard could be a highly sought-after free agent -- the guy's averaging a robust 5.3 yards over his four-year pro career, after all -- and the Cowboys must consider the challenge of replacing him with a draft pick. Though running backs are often deemed expendable in today's game, it will be hard to part with a productive playmaker who has capably filled his role as a change-of-pace weapon in Dallas' offense.

It is cost prohibitive to pay Pollard elite RB1 money with Elliott on the books for $16.72 million in 2023, per Over The Cap. Given Zeke's dead cap number of $11.86 million in 2023, the Cowboys might look to restructure Elliott's contract and find a way to keep both runners on the squad. By restructuring the veteran to a more manageable number, Dallas could keep him as the trusty power runner/short-yardage specialist/pass protector while expanding Pollard's role.

If Elliott agrees to bring his salary down to a number that enables to Cowboys to give him his cash up front while reducing his cap hit, the team could pay Pollard a high-end salary for his services as an offensive weapon. The 'Boys could essentially split Elliott's salary in half to keep the two valuable offensive playmakers, with each guy getting $7 million-plus annually.

Although the Elliott-vs.-Pollard debate will rage on into 2023, I believe the Cowboys are at their best when No. 21 and No. 20 share the workload as part of a complementary tandem that gives opponents fits.

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