SANTA CLARA - The middle class is disappearing in the NFL.
This is an assessment from draft guru Mike Mayock, who cited the recent huge contract signed by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and the impending deal for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers as evidence. Flacco recently signed a six-year, $120.6 million extension, and Rodgers' deal is expected to be even more lucrative.
With an annual salary cap of around $120 million, that doesn't leave much money for a team's 52 other players.
Mayock, participating in a predraft conference call Thursday, emphasized how important it is to make good draft picks. When teams have elite, highly compensated players, he said, they are forced to surround them with rookies who are relatively cheap.
"Because the way today's NFL is going - if you're going to pay Joe Flacco, you can't pay everybody. If you pay Aaron Rodgers, you can't pay everybody," said Mayock, who works for the NFL Network. "So what we're getting in the NFL is no middle class. It's eight or 10 guys (who) are paid heavily, and then your rookies have to contribute because they're paid less and they keep you in whack with the salary cap. So when you make mistakes with rookies, it kills you."
Enter the 49ers, who must prepare for a mega-contract next year. If quarterback Colin Kaepernick continues on his current trajectory, he could command a deal even richer than Rodgers'.
And he's not the 49ers' only budding star who will be looking for a huge deal. There are 45 players on the 49ers' roster whose current contracts expire over the next two seasons. Of that group, 10 are starters, including wide receiver Michael Crabtree, linebacker Aldon Smith, guard Mike Iupati, cornerback Tarell Brown and safety Donte Whitner.
There's not enough room under the salary cap for everyone, and the 49ers will have to be picky about which players they re-sign and which they let go, knowing they will have to replace some of their talented starters.
And that underscores the importance of next week's draft. The 49ers will have 13 selections when the draft begins Thursday - including five in the first three rounds - and they've already accumulated nine picks for the 2014 draft.
What's more, the 49ers wisely are thinking a year - even two - down the road when free agency is certain to affect their roster.
General manager Trent Baalke called it "drafting prior to need."
"When you need a cornerback, when you need a running back, when you need an offensive lineman - the year you need them is not the year to be picking them," Baalke said Wednesday. "Because historically, how many rookies have come in and established themselves as 'the man' at any position? ...
"The teams that have been successful and have been successful for a long period of time are teams that aren't drafting for need on that given year. They're drafting a year, maybe even two years, ahead of need."
For Baalke and the 49ers, the mission is sustainability. There are not 13 openings on the team's talent-laden roster, and no one believes Baalke will make 13 picks next week. Some selections likely will be parlayed into more picks for 2014. And during next year's draft, some will be turned into 2015 picks and so on.
The 49ers also can borrow a trick from quarterback-savvy teams such as the Packers and Eagles, who in previous years took passers in the middle or end of the draft, developed them and then traded them for high draft picks.
It's a solid plan for sustained success in the modern NFL. And much of it rests on what the 49ers do next week.