ST. LOUIS -- As they sit down to watch the NFC Championship Game between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers this weekend, St. Louis Rams fans might find themselves wondering how their team can keep pace with the two NFC West division heavyweights.
They might also wonder how the Seahawks and Niners became such powerhouses in the first place. There is more than one correct answer to both questions but there's one response that could apply to either: the quarterbacks. More specifically, the cost (or lack thereof) of the quarterbacks.
Seattle and San Francisco are to be commended for finding talented signal callers in Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick in the third and second round, respectively. Both teams have done a good job of developing the quarterbacks and getting production out of them early in their careers. Taking it further, they've also benefited greatly from the fact that Wilson and Kaepernick are dirt cheap relative to other starters on playoff-caliber teams.
In 2013, Kaepernick's cap hit was $1,397,535, which ranked 43rd amongst the league's quarterbacks. Wilson was even cheaper, coming in at $681,085, which ranked 54th amongst NFL quarterbacks. For a little perspective, Wilson's backup Tarvaris Jackson makes $840,000.
Kaepernick accounts for 1.2 percent of San Francisco's salary cap and Wilson just 0.5 percent of Seattle's. Even the most adept coupon clippers would struggle to find bargain prices that good.
Meanwhile, St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford accounted for 11.48 percent of the team's salary cap with a cap value of $12,600,425 in 2013. Bradford played in less than seven full games before a season-ending ACL injury against Carolina in Week 7. While Bradford was playing well before the injury, he's widely -- and rightfully -- regarded as lower on the quarterback hierarchy than Wilson or Kaepernick.
Of course, Bradford's hefty contract is no fault of the Rams. Rather, it's a function of a broken rookie wage scale that saw top draft picks making so much money that it was a major point of negotiation in the last collective bargaining agreement. The Rams just so happened to have the unfortunate timing of making the final No. 1 overall pick before the rookie wage scale was introduced and top picks became far more palatable.
Despite Bradford's expensive deal, the Rams have remained active in free agency and continued building through the draft with some savvy maneuvering. Still, that hasn't been enough to keep up with the likes of the Niners and Seahawks, both of whom had a bit of a head start and have a much better recent history of intelligent drafting and spending.
So how does one go about quantifying the net effect of having cheaper options such as Wilson and Kaepernick at quarterback? It's clear that Seattle and San Francisco have concentrated their spending on defense, where they have spent the most and fifth-most of their caps of any teams in the league.
Here's two prime examples:
Seattle has built one of the league's deepest rosters overall with special attention and extra funds toward building the defensive line. The Seahawks invested a whopping 27 percent of their cap on defensive linemen this season. Bargain signings on veteran linemen Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett elevated an already strong group and the Seahawks were rewarded by leading the NFL in pressuring opposing quarterbacks on 33 percent of their drop backs.
San Francisco has also built a deep and talented roster but used much of its savings on putting together the league's best linebacking corps. Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks have all earned Pro Bowl appearances in the past two seasons. The Niners invested 15 percent of their salary cap on the position.
It would be unfair to imply that the quarterbacks are the only thing setting the Niners and Seahawks apart from teams like the Rams. Seattle and San Francisco have built complete rosters with talent at most every position and both rely on elite defenses. But it's also instructive to note the types of moves, such as Seattle's addition of Bennett and Avril, both teams have made while the Rams find themselves scrapping for salary-cap space this offseason.
Of course, the day will soon come when both Seattle and San Francisco have to pay the piper and ante up lucrative contracts to keep their quarterbacks. That will almost certainly prevent both teams from retaining all of the current talent on the roster -- for an example, see Baltimore's 2013 offseason adventures -- and that should help level the playing field.
In the meantime, the Rams' margin for error in the draft and free agency remains far thinner than the two NFC West rivals who will play for a trip to the Super Bowl on Sunday.