SANTA CLARA -- For four months, 49ers and Seahawks players slog it out in the trenches, toil in film rooms and grit it out in training rooms for NFC West supremacy.
During the rest of the year, the battle boils down to two men, Trent Baalke and John Schneider. The teams’ general managers have done a masterful job of assembling young talent – or youngish talent in the 49ers’ case – in recent years, including 20-something quarterbacks with huge upsides.
Young players are the lifeblood of the NFL. They are cheap labor, and teams that can find ones precocious enough to fill big roles early in their careers can outfox the league’s unforgiving salary cap and win championships, as the Seahawks did this season. Sixteen contributors on their Super Bowl squad played on inexpensive rookie contracts.
The problem is that young players eventually turn into multiyear veterans, and – poof – that cheap, abundant labor vanishes like a late-autumn dandelion. That’s why there are no longer NFL dynasties – it’s impossible for a general manager to keep all his chess pieces on the board at the same time.
The Seahawks may teem with youth at the moment – the average age is 26 – but they have 15 players destined for free agency next month, with more looking to cash in next year. The downside of a terrific draft is that it creates difficult choices three and four years later.
Seattle’s defensive captain, safety Earl Thomas, is eligible for an extension that should earn him more than $8 million a year. Cornerback Richard Sherman is in line for a lucrative extension, too. Next year at this time, Schneider and the Seahawks must start thinking about a deal for quarterback Russell Wilson, who, already having won a Super Bowl, could command $20 million a year or more.
Baalke has similar problems, beginning with his quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, who is eligible for a contract extension this offseason. Kaepernick earned $740,844 in base salary in 2013. He was in the bottom third of the team’s salary structure, ranking just ahead of reserve linebacker Dan Skuta and just behind his own backup, Colt McCoy.
McCoy took 22 snaps this season. Kaepernick took 968. He was an absurd bargain considering starting quarterbacks routinely are the fat cats – the 1 percenters, if you will – on nearly every other squad.
Kaepernick’s deal promises to be the 49ers’ biggest offseason move because it will dictate whom else they can sign this season. It’s the cornerstone to their salary cap. Once it’s in place, the 49ers will know which other pieces will slide in.
The two sides will sit down for the first time later this month at the scouting combine in Indianapolis. If their numbers are close, Kaepernick’s contract will be a quick, no-drama affair. If not, it could bleed into the team’s 2014 preparations and become a distraction.
Kaepernick signaled it might not be drawn out when, during a radio interview last week, he acknowledged there must be “balance” when it comes to his contract so the 49ers have room to sign their own free agents, including his favorite target from 2013, Anquan Boldin.
Still, even with a reasonable (for a franchise quarterback) deal, the 49ers will not be able to keep all of their star players in the coming years, just as the Seahawks won’t be able to retain all of theirs.
Which is why Baalke and Schneider essentially will decide the outcome of the league’s best and fiercest rivalry. They will choose which players stay and which leave.
And perhaps more importantly, they are in charge of replacing the players who do move on.
When it comes to finding that young talent, Schneider has the edge so far.
His first draft in 2010 included Thomas, safety Kam Chancellor and offensive tackle Russell Okung. The next year, he brought in Sherman, linebacker K.J. Wright and, in the seventh round, Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith. Schneider drafted Wilson and linebacker Bobby Wagner in 2012.
Baalke, however, has a leg up for the future.
While the Seahawks have six picks in the May draft – a third-rounder went to Minnesota as part of last year’s trade for Percy Harvin – Baalke and the 49ers have 12 picks, including an expected six selections in the first three rounds.
The draft is shaping up as a very good one, and it’s particularly deep at the positions at which the 49ers need to reload – wide receiver, cornerback, safety and backup quarterback.
What’s more, many players from San Francisco’s 2013 draft and the rookie free-agency period promise to see the field – some for the first time – next season.
In essence, defensive ends Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial and Lawrence Okoye, running back Marcus Lattimore and offensive tackle Luke Marquardt will be part of the team’s 2014 draft class.
The objective in the NFL is to stay young. Baalke and the 49ers promise to receive a big infusion of youth this year.
Read Matthew Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers and listen for his reports Tuesdays on ESPN Radio 1320.