Though NFL owners would like to curtail spending for the very earliest rookie draft choices, quite a few young players outperform their rookie deals.
The NFC West has its share of bargains, most priced at less than $1 million this season. The 49ers had fewer candidates than I might have expected, a reflection of the progress San Francisco has made in extending contracts for young core players:
1. Calais Campbell, Cardinals defensive end. Campbell produced 7.0 sacks in his first season as a starter, more than predecessor Antonio Smith has ever managed in a season. Sacks aren't everything, particularly for a 3-4 end, but Campbell is already better than some veteran starters. He'll earn $470,000 in salary this season on a deal averaging $726,250 per season.
2. Josh Wilson, Seahawks cornerback. Like Campbell, Wilson entered the NFL as a second-round draft choice. His base salary is $550,000. Wilson is an opportunistic, fearless corner with value as a kickoff returner. He has six interceptions, four touchdowns and two sacks in three pro seasons.
3. Tim Hightower, Cardinals running back. Beanie Wells projects as the long-term starter, but Hightower has shown value as a good all-around player and short-yardage runner. Hightower has 18 touchdowns in two NFL seasons and his 2010 salary is $470,000. He has run with the starters this offseason.
4. John Carlson, Seahawks tight end. Carlson provides more evidence that the second round can be a prime place to find bargains. He has 106 receptions for 1,201 yards and 12 touchdowns in two seasons. He'll earn less than $600,000 this season.
5. James Laurinaitis, Rams linebacker. Four of the top five bargains were second-round choices. Laurinaitis' deal averages about $1.2 million annually. He improved as a rookie last season and projects as a leader for Steve Spagnuolo's defense.
6. Adam Goldberg, Rams offensive lineman. Goldberg is earning more than $1 million this season, good money for a backup. But he has started 20 games over the past two seasons while providing leadership and stability to an offense lacking in both areas. Goldberg is also versatile enough to play guard or tackle.
7. Lyle Sendlein, Cardinals center. The Cardinals could have new starters at four of the five spots on their offensive line. Sendlein, tendered at the $1.684 million level, is one lineman expected to remain in his previous spot. That says something about his value. Centers can be overlooked, but lots of things go wrong if a team has a bad one.
8. Justin Forsett, Seahawks running back. Go ahead and move Forsett up this list if he emerges as Seattle's starter in 2010. Forsett averaged 5.4 yards per carry on 116 attempts despite all sorts of offensive problems around him last season. A seventh-round choice in 2007, Forsett's deal pays him $475,000 in base salary this season.
9. Brandon Mebane, Seahawks defensive tackle. His salary is north of $1 million, but that's still a relative bargain based on what Mebane provides. The Seahawks had lots of problems on defense last season, but their situation at tackle wasn't one of them.
10. Donnie Avery, Rams receiver. The 2008 second-round choice has 100 receptions and eight touchdowns in two seasons despite injury problems and the Rams' overall offensive malaise. The Rams are scheduled to pay him $547,500 in salary this season.
The fine print: As noted, the 49ers have rewarded quite a few of their younger players. Others, including Vernon Davis, are earning good money this season. Manny Lawson, Josh Morgan and Dashon Goldson were considerations, but each had a chance to earn more money through escalators. The Rams' Clifton Ryan was a consideration at $1.684 million.
Earlier: overvalued players in the NFC West.