The Evolution of Michael Crabtree as an Elite Wide Receiver

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The Evolution of Michael Crabtree as an Elite Wide Receiver
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

When Michael Crabtree was drafted in the first round of the 2009 NFL draft, the San Francisco 49ers envisioned the second coming of Jerry Rice. OK, so maybe not the second coming of Rice, but they did imagine a game changer.

Bill Walsh had Dwight Clark, George Seifert had Rice, Steve Mariucci had Terrell Owens, and Dennis Erickson and Mike Nolan had no one. Mike Singletary wanted to make sure he wasn't left in the cold like Erickson and Nolan were, so he went all in on one of the most productive two-year starters in NCAA history.

Crabtree drew comparisons to Larry Fitzgerald. He was regarded as a top-five lock, considering he piled up 3,127 yards receiving and 41 touchdowns during his freshman and sophomore seasons at Texas Tech. Not to mention, he caught an unprecedented 231 balls and was a consensus All-American in both 2007 and 2008.

However, his pre-draft top-five lock slowly became a fantasy as a fracture in his left foot caused him to miss the next six to 10 weeks of action. It meant the NFL Scouting Combine and his Texas Tech pro day would be a no go.

The only thing Crabtree did at the combine was weigh in, get measured and take the Wonderlic Test. He scored a 15 on the Wonderlic, measured in at 6'1'' and weighed in at 214 pounds. Many felt his injury and inability to perform at the combine consequently hurt his draft stock. 

Obviously, it didn't hurt his draft stock too much, as he still wound up as the 10th pick overall. In surprising fashion, he ultimately fell into the 49ers' lap after being passed on at No. 7 for Darrius Heyward-Bey.

As you can see in the video above, it doesn't seem to bother Crabtree much as he knew Al Davis and the Raiders were the laughing stock of the league. Two years prior, they gave JaMarcus Russell a six-year contract that had $32 million worth of guaranteed money.

As the 10th overall selection, Crabtree had become the highest-drafted player out of Texas Tech since Donny Anderson went seventh overall in 1965.

Even though he didn't appear at the NFL Scouting Combine or his Texas Tech pro day, the unproven rookie felt it was necessary to hold out until October 7, 2009. It marked a total holdout length of 71 days, but in the end, Crabtree declared victory by signing a six-year, $32 million deal that included $17 million in guaranteed money.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Unfortunately for the 49ers, Crabtree only managed to log 624 snaps during his rookie season, according to Pro Football Focus. Yet the low snap count didn't stop him from producing when he was on the field amidst the quarterback carousel between Shaun Hill and Alex Smith. 

Despite missing the first five games of the season, Crabtree went on to average 56.8 yards per game. He finished second on the team in receiving yards behind the always dangerous Vernon Davis. Davis was another guy who was viewed as a flop until that magical 2009 season where he drew a 129 targets and caught 13 touchdown passes. 

With his key development and progress, the 49ers were hoping the same could be said about Crabtree in his second season. And based on his numbers, there's no question he progressed—even if it was only a bit. He finished the 2010 season with more targets, catches, yards and touchdowns than his rookie season.

He even managed to record his first 100-yard game on October 10, 2010, against the Philadelphia Eagles. Disastrously, San Francisco's quarterback position was still in flux with Singletary waffling between Troy Smith and Alex Smith throughout the season.

The video below sums up how well the Troy Smith experiment went. It also sums up the repeated headbutting Coach Singletary did with his players. Throughout his coaching tenure in the Bay Area, it was easy to see there was an obvious lack of respect between him and the players.

Fortunately for all parties involved, Singletary was sent packing after an 18-22 record as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. The most obvious names being floated around to replace the Hall of Fame linebacker were Brian Billick, Marty Mornhinweg, John Gruden and Jim Harbaugh.

Harbaugh seemed to be the guy fans wanted all along due to his coaching track record, but it appeared as if Dolphins majority owner Stephen Ross was going to woo him to South Beach. It turns out no one wanted to work for Mr. Ross, so Harbaugh decided the Bay Area was a better fit.

The new hire at head coach brought optimism to a fanbase that hadn't experienced a winning season since 2002. It also brought optimism to a locker room that sorely needed it after having poor leadership the past six seasons prior.

The Harbaugh hire brought new hope to an offense that hadn't finished in the top 15 since 2003. During the 2011 season, this same hope that was envisioned at the beginning of the season was coming to fruition at every position on the offensive side of the ball.

Quarterback Alex Smith was turned into a Pro Bowler overnight, running back Frank Gore found the fountain of youth, and Crabtree managed to lead the 49ers in receiving yards. This was something he couldn't manage to do during his first two seasons.

He still failed to reach the 1,000-yard plateau, but he managed to almost increase every major statistical category for the second straight season. He caught 17 more passes in 2011 than he did in 2010, garnered 133 more receiving yards than he did in 2010 and recorded the first multi-touchdown game of his career Week 16.

Moreover, Crabtree's season was seen as such a success that PFF had him graded out as its 17th-best wideout in all of football. Obviously it was nowhere near the top based on overall statistics and play on tape, yet he was slowly coming along and growing up in front of our eyes.

Chart provided by Pro Football Focus

His maturation process was given a bump after the 49ers decided that they needed to beef up their receiving corps even more. Sure, Davis was a major threat up the seam, but Crabtree was the only option on the outside. So what did general manager Trent Baalke and Coach Harbaugh do?

They went out and acquired two veteran wide receivers in free agency. The first being Mario Manningham of the New York Giants and the second being Randy Moss. Moss sat out the entire 2011 season after a rocky finish to the 2010 season.

After the signing took place in March, it was viewed as a leadership signing. And frankly, I think it has been exactly that. Without question, Moss has helped Crabtree grow and evolve into the player he is today. The addition had sports journalists predicting this same notion back in May. 

Yet the real evolution began when No. 11 went down with a concussion during the 49ers' Week 10 contest against the St. Louis Rams. You may ask, how did Smith's injury help Crabtree evolve? It's simple: The move made way for second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The numbers don't lie; Kaepernick has helped reveal Crabtree's full body of work. Over the course of the team's first nine games of the season, Smith hooked up with Crabtree 44 times for 510 yards and five touchdowns.

Since Kap took over under center full-time, he has managed to hook up with Crabtree 56 times for 771 yards and seven touchdowns. Additionally, Kaepernick's presence helped him become the seventh-best wide receiver in the NFL after finishing 10 spots lower in 2011.

Chart provided by Pro Football Focus

If the numbers aren't enough to convince you, let Crabtree's media day comments speak for themselves.

Here's what he said Tuesday during the media session at the Superdome (via Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com): "You can be the best receiver in the world. If you don't have a quarterback...those talents won't be seen. I'm the same person since I came into the league."

He has a valid point. If you turn on the tape, you see a very similar player who plays with more passion and a better sense of urgency now that he is involved in the offense more. His involvement and playmaking ability has led Coach Harbaugh to praise Crabtree up and down, especially at his press conference this past Friday.

When Harbaugh was asked what makes Crabtree outstanding, here's what was relayed back to the media (via Tim Kawakami of the Mercury News):

Well documented his ability to catch the football. He just keeps catching and catching and catching the ball.

Next his ability to get open, his route-running ability. Next is—and none of these are in order; great receivers have these qualities, they’re like a carpenter that has a lot of tools, you know? Can’t say the hammer or the saw is more important than the other.

His ability to run after the catch. He runs very much like a running back, and his ability to block. And his mind. He does a great job understanding his assignments and those around him. Very much a complete player.

Based on Crabtree's comments and the comments of Harbaugh, the talent has always been there, it just took the right quarterback to unleash it. And no matter what your thoughts about Crabtree are, he is an elite talent that evolved due to the fact the 49ers quarterback position has evolved under Kaepernick.

Ultimately, evolution is easy when you think about the meaning. It is a process of change in a certain direction, according to Merriam-Webster.com. The process of change from Crabtree and Kaepernick turned Greg Roman's offense from an above-average unit to the current gold standard.

 

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