Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports



Video gamers have always utilized cheat codes to skip ahead in games and reach the exciting climax more quickly. In Super Mario Brothers, players could use the warp zones to skip from level one to level four, and level four to level eight, jumping ahead to the final battle with King Koopa and rescuing Princess Toadstool in a much shorter amount of time. Fans of Mike Tyson's Punchout often utilized a cheat code to skip past the other thirteen fights and get right to the championship showdown with Iron Mike. Fans of legendary two-player shooting adventure Contra can still rattle off the cheat code by memory: up, up, down, down, left, right, left right, b, a, start. Players entering that code were provided with 30 lives to make it through the alien invasion and save the day, as opposed to the three lives that were normally allotted.

In the NFL, obviously building a team is not a game in the literal sense, but there are parallels to be drawn. There is a process to building a team the right way and the 49ers need to look no further than division rival Seattle to see a sterling example. While the 49ers appeared to be on the verge of a potential dynasty under Jim Harbaugh, Seattle was quietly building a team that would surpass the Niners on its way to a Super Bowl Championship. While those teams were clashing as arguably the two best in the league, they had a very important piece in common that made that success possible: a quarterback playing at a high level on a rookie contract.

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The NFL salary cap for 2017 is $167 million. That means that quarterbacks making more than 20 million dollars per year, which is now the going rate for top-tier signal callers, are occupying roughly 1/7th of their team's salary cap. Russell Wilson's base salaries in 2012-2014 were $390,000, $526,217, and $662,434 respectively. Colin Kaepernick's salaries during the same period were $607,922, $740,844 and $645,000. When your starting quarterback is making less than $1 million in base salary that leaves a lot of money available to spend at other positions of need. Once that rookie contract is up and the quarterback commands a top salary, things can change in a hurry.

When it came time for the Indianapolis Colts to sign Andrew Luck to his second contract in 2016, it was an NFL record: five years, $122 million with $89 million guaranteed. While attempting to defend himself after the Colts continued to underachieve, former general manager Ryan Grigson famously stated, "When you pay Andrew (Luck) what we did, it's going to take some time to build on the other side of the ball." While he was correct in principle, he conveniently let himself off the hook for not taking advantage of the years when the team had Luck on a minimal contract.

General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan have done a great job of identifying their type of players, whether they're players who were already on the team or the players selected during their first draft. They've established a foundation that makes it easy to see that the future is bright and the 49ers will be back to their winning ways in the near future. The only question is if it will be sooner or later. Rookie quarterback C.J. Beathard has the power to determine if the rebuilding process will remain on a steady course towards real contention in the next few years, or benefit from the cheat code and leap forward into immediate contention as early as next year.

After being drafted in the third round of the draft, Beathard was not expected to come in and become the team's franchise quarterback. Talk has still revolved around the impending free agent class with names like Kirk Cousins and Jimmy Garoppolo, and the draft with names like Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen. However, if Beathard plays well enough over these next ten games to solidify his position as the 49ers' starting quarterback, a world of possibilities opens up for the 49ers.

What if the 49ers don't have to spend their #1 pick on a quarterback? They could really use an elite pass rusher, or shutdown cornerback, or stud offensive lineman, or star linebacker to complement Reuben Foster. How about Saquon Barkley, the most exciting prospect coming out of college at the running back position since Adrian Peterson?

What if they don't have to spend roughly 1/7th of their entire salary cap on a free agent quarterback? The 49ers already have what amounts to an astronomical amount of space under the cap to pursue free agents. Not having to spend a large chunk on a quarterback would increase their flexibility even more. Imagine how many more productive players can be signed with the money that would go to one free agent quarterback. By resisting the temptation to spend big in the free agent market earlier this year, the team is able to see exactly which young players develop in the system and make more informed decisions in the 2018 market.

This is not a prediction about how Beathard will play. I won't pretend to have one. Like all of you, I am hopeful. However, I do know that if he is able to lock down that position and become the 49ers' undisputed starting quarterback going into the 2018 season, he will allow the team to speed up the rebuilding process and take the ceiling off the team's potential next season.