Middle class disappearing in NFC South

When New York Giants left tackle Will Beatty agreed to a five-year, $38.75 million contract Wednesday, the already dwindling middle class in the NFC South instantly shrank by two.

Beatty’s deal sets the bar for Atlanta left tackle Sam Baker and New Orleans left tackle Jermon Bushrod. The Falcons and Saints will either give Baker and Bushrod something similar to what Beatty got, or someone else will.

If they stay in the division, Baker and Bushrod won’t be drawing middle-class salaries as they have in recent years. But Baker and Bushrod might represent the new NFC South, a division in which there will be virtually no middle class next season.

In Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina, the 2013 rosters are going to be filled with most of their players making either a lot of money or the league minimum, or close to it. Tampa Bay’s in a different situation because the Buccaneers have about $30 million in salary-cap room and can still afford some middle-class players.

But the Falcons, Saints and Panthers aren’t even close to being in the same boat.

Call it the price of success for the Falcons and Saints. And call it the price of some hefty (but, in some cases, questionable) contracts the Panthers have given out in recent years.

The Saints have been the division’s most successful team since 2006 and won a Super Bowl in the 2009 season. They’re paying handsomely for it now. Quarterback Drew Brees became the league’s highest-paid player last summer when he signed his new contract.

Brees has a $17.4 million salary-cap figure for this season. To put that in perspective, Brees is taking up 14.4 percent of New Orleans’ cap. Even after some fancy restructuring of five contracts, the Saints still have six players with cap figures of at least $5.75 million.

They have another nine players counting more than $3 million against the cap. That means New Orleans has most of its cap tied up in 14 players.

Aside from Jimmy Graham, Mark Ingram and Cameron Jordan, who are still on their rookie contracts, the Saints really have no middle class. The rest of their roster is filled with guys making minimum salaries or very close to the minimum -- and I doubt that’s going to change because the Saints, who are still working to get under the cap, aren’t likely to have much room to add any free agents.

That’s not a good position to be in when the Saints are trying to overhaul a defense that ranked last in the league last season, one that is moving to a 3-4 scheme. The Saints need to add some key role players; the best way to do that is with midsized contracts in free agency. Instead, if the Saints are going to improve, they’ll probably have to do most of it through the draft.

But the Saints shouldn’t feel too bad about that because the rival Falcons are in a similar situation. The Falcons have had five consecutive winning seasons using a lot of middle-class players, but their middle class is about to disappear. In addition to Baker, safety William Moore and cornerback Brent Grimes are potential free agents and are going to get big money -- in Atlanta or elsewhere. Either way, they’re not going to have middle-class salaries anymore.

Not counting those three, the Falcons already have nine players scheduled to count at least $5.2 million against the 2013 cap. They have another four who are counting more than $3.5 million against the cap. After that, there’s not much more on the roster beside guys making the minimum.

Plus, the gap between Atlanta’s "haves" and "have-nots" is only likely to get bigger. At some point this offseason, the Falcons are likely to give quarterback Matt Ryan a contract extension that should put him at least in Brees’ ballpark. If veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez returns for one more season, it’s probably going to cost the Falcons at least $5 million a year.

There’s been a lot of fan speculation about the Falcons pursuing running back Steven Jackson or defensive ends Dwight Freeney or Osi Umenyiora. The problem is, I don’t see how the Falcons can pull off any big deals, and I doubt Freeney, Umenyiora or Jackson will sign midlevel deals.

If you were a Carolina fan and you could see the Panthers’ salary-cap ledger, you’d probably cry. The Panthers have 10 players counting at least $5.7 million against the salary cap. For whatever reason (and I think there might have been some prodding from ownership), former general manager Marty Hurney spent like crazy as soon as the 2011 lockout ended.

Those deals are now getting into the time frame when they count far more against the cap than in the past. There likely will be some restructuring, but, at the moment, the Panthers have 78.04 percent of their salary cap tied up in 15 players.

After that, they’ve got a bunch of guys making somewhere near the minimum, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. At some point in the next couple of years, the Panthers are going to have to give quarterback Cam Newton a huge contract extension.

There’s no room for middle-class players in Carolina. Or Atlanta. Or New Orleans.

If the Panthers, Falcons and Saints are going to get better, they’ll have to do it through the draft.