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Colin Kaepernick is playing his way to a big payday 2017

Colin Kaepernick is playing really good football for the 49ers, even if the team can’t find wins.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Miami Dolphins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Colin Kaepernick signed a seven-year, $126.97 million contract in June 2014 but started the 2016 season on the bench. After breaking out as a young star of the future in the latter half of the 2012 season, his play slowly and painfully declined until he was no longer the starter for the San Francisco 49ers by 2015.

In the offseason, he expressed a desire to be traded and almost landed with the Denver Broncos, but no deal came to fruition. There were questions whether he’d make the final roster. But now, with six starts under his belt in 2016, there have been glimpses of the player who earned a big contract in the first place.

With 10 touchdowns and three interceptions, Kaepernick has a passer rating of 87.0 in six games under center. While it lands him in the bottom half of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks, it’s a significant uptick from the decline that originally cost him his job.

Prior to 2016, Kaepernick’s passer rating had steadily declined from 98.3 in half a season's snaps in 2012 to 78.5 when he lost his job in 2015:

It has been enough to inspire hope that the 29-year-old quarterback still has a future in the NFL.

Prior to the recent resurgence, there appeared to be a real possibility that Kaepernick’s career would end after the 2016 season. His play had sharply diminished, he couldn’t beat out Blaine Gabbert for a starting role, and the media whirlwind surrounding his protests made it entirely feasible that no other team would take on the distraction and criticism that would come with signing Kaepernick.

But it suddenly looks like a worthwhile risk to have Kaepernick on an NFL roster. So much so, that it’s possible that even the 49ers could consider keeping the quarterback paired with Chip Kelly in 2017 — something that seemed impossible just a few months ago.

Yes, his $19.4 million cap hit next year is large, but the 49ers can afford it. ESPN reported in October that Kaepernick can opt out of his deal after the season, and if he does that, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in March. But if he returns in 2017, he will still be off the books in 2018, clearing the way for the 49ers to turn over the reins to a young quarterback groomed behind Kaepernick for a year.

All of this is possible for the 49ers because Kaepernick has been playing really well as of late. Against the Miami Dolphins — a team with a top-10 pass defense — Kaepernick led the 49ers with 282 passing yards, three touchdowns, one interception, and 113 rushing yards. The 475 yards of total offense gained by San Francisco are the most the Dolphins have given up all season.

“I’m getting more and more comfortable in this offense,” Kaepernick told reporters Tuesday, via the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. “Ultimately, I think that’s what it comes down to for a quarterback is getting comfortable in an offense, really getting your feet settled in, getting that foundation to be able to go out and just play freely and this offense has been great for me in that way.”

It’s not gimmicks or Chip Kelly magic that’s freeing up Kaepernick to make plays. Most of Kelly’s offense asks Kaepernick to connect on shorter passes underneath, but the quarterback has done a great job at quickly advancing through progressions and firing strikes on target.

He showed that development early in Week 12, completing his first pass of the game for a first down:

The quarterback’s eyes take Dolphins linebacker Neville Hewitt to the left side of the field, and when Kaepernick quickly shifts his focus back to the right side, he fires to Quinton Patton before Hewitt has time to impact the play.

Several similar plays happened fast enough to keep the dangerous Miami pass rush from affecting Kaepernick much. His statistics would have been even better on the day given a better performance by the team’s receiving corps. The 49ers are near the league lead in drops and lack a legitimate threat, with Jeremy Kerley leading the team in receiving yards followed by tight end Vance McDonald.

A would-be touchdown was dropped by McDonald on the opening drive (although Kaepernick connected with Carlos Hyde for a touchdown on the next play), and the second drive stalled after Kerley dropped a pass across the middle that mirrored the connection with Patton earlier in the game.

The quick-strike offense suits Kaepernick’s skill set, and he’s playing legitimately good football at a stage in his career when many wrote him off.

In his last four starts, Kaepernick has passed for 1,110 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions. The only time in his career he had a better four-game regular season stretch was the last three games of 2012 and season opener in 2013 when he combined for 1,153 yards, 10 touchdowns and two interceptions.

At that time, the 49ers won games when Kaepernick played well, but that’s not the case in 2016. Even with his improved play, San Francisco is 0-6 with Kaepernick starting, and no matter how well he plays, the door has long been shut for the 1-10 49ers.

But the door is open for Kaepernick’s future, which suddenly looks like it could be bright once again.