He was always among the most gifted, but for nearly four years, he was written off as another underachieving first-rounder. As the No. 10 overall pick (2009), Crabtree was inducted into a storied franchise with high expectations of him.
This comes naturally with him being one of the most dazzling pass catchers in the history of college football.
At Texas Tech, Crabtree had 3,127 yards and 41 touchdowns in 26 games played, per Sports Reference. He was easily one of the most dangerous weapons in the NCAA, and it earned him national recognition as he carried the Red Raiders.
His utter domination of college defenses won him the Biletnikoff Award in his first year, making him the first-ever freshman and Big 12 player to do so. Crabtree went back-to-back at the College Football Awards, taking home the honor once more, which made him the first-ever two-time recipient.
He declared for the NFL draft after his sophomore season.
This was a high-ceiling player who many placed in the backs of their minds because his pro career failed to get off to a fast start. This dismissal kept him under the league-wide radar until 2012 when he accomplished his first 1,000-yard season.
The potential was always there, but like many of the other emerging players who carried over from the old regime, the talent was just nesting. For Crabtree, the system, offensive line and quarterback chemistry did not fall into place until recently.
And like tumblers in a lock, everything has lined up for the five-year pro to really take this league by storm.
Is Michael Crabtree a Top-10 Receiver?
Now that the finished product is becoming evident, it is finally applicable to talk about his career potential. Considering all of the components, he certainly has the makeup and the atmosphere to become a prolific receiver.
On a team in transition, Crabtree had a breakthrough season, ranking among the top-15 receivers in the league.
2012 Regular Season: 85 receptions, 1,105 (14th NFL/9th in NFC), 9 TDs (13.0 YPC)
Per Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle, Crabtree saw career-highs across the board despite inconsistency at the quarterback position and an offensive anomaly every third game.
For those who watched him year in and year out, Crabtree’s development is not a surprise. In each of his four years in the league, No. 15 posted improved numbers annually, which included the two most prominent: receptions and yards.
His nine TD grabs in 2012 were also a personal best—over 100 percent more than he scored a year ago.
Taking a look at the numbers, Crabtree was en route to a milestone season, but it goes without saying that the uprising of Colin Kaepernick was the catalyst that launched his game to the next level.
According to the 49ers wide receiver, Kaepernick “trusted” him more, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. Crabtree believed his new quarterback allowed him to be a playmaker by putting the ball on him, whether he was covered or not.
This was the most prevalent difference stemming from the quarterback change in San Francisco.
It also became evident in the productivity by the receiver on a weekly basis. When looking at Crabtree’s stat line in full games with both quarterbacks—Week 10 vs. St. Louis excluded—he flourished with Kaepernick.
In eight games with Alex Smith, the fourth-year wideout finished with 39 catches for 440 yards and three TDs (one 100-yard game). In 10 games with Kaepernick, he piled up 61 receptions for 880 yards and eight TDs (five 100-yard games).
Crabtree’s average output per game ultimately increased by 33.0 yards.
Furthermore, had those 10 games translated to a 16-game schedule, Crabtree would have had roughly 97 catches for 1,408 yards and 13 touchdowns. That would have made him a top-five receiver behind Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall and Demaryius Thomas.
And frankly, you can almost eliminate Calvin Johnson’s out-of-this-world stat line, where the Lions receiver posted nearly 2,000 yards receiving. He was targeted 205 times and had 40 plays of 20-plus yards, making him No. 1 in both categories by a mile.
And with or without these projections, Crabtree was statistically on par with, if not better than, Julio Jones, Victor Cruz, Randall Cobb and Torrey Smith; all of whom ranked outside the top 10.
San Francisco’s 2013 WR Corps
In a recent poll, NFL.com inquired about which franchise has the best wide receiver corps in the league. The debate was sparked by Miami Dolphins wide receiver Brian Hartline after he claimed his team “absolutely” had the best in the AFC East, per NFL.com.
The site’s analysts then hashed it out in print, wherein the Broncos and Falcons were among the popular vote. Dave Dameshek, on the other hand, surprised many by listing the San Francisco 49ers as his No. 1 unit.
There is a lot to like about what they did this offseason: Randy Moss and Ted Ginn Jr. are out, and Anquan Boldin and Quinton Patton are in.
Instead of paying two middle-of-the-road players modest salaries, San Francisco splurged on one top-notch receiver via the trade wire while bringing in another electric talent in the 2013 NFL draft.
Which team will have the NFL's best receiving corps in 2013?
Only a few months ago, Boldin and Crabtree were the Nos. 1 and 2 leading receivers in the postseason, helping carry their squads to Super Bowl XLVII, per NFL.com Stats. During that run, they had a collective output of 44 receptions for 665 yards and seven touchdowns.
Kyle Williams, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins are also returning—two from ACL injuries and one from a zero-catch season.
Overall, this is an awfully endowed corps of players at a single position group. If the Niners can stay healthy here, there is no reason why they should not be in consideration for one of the best units in the league.
And with Kaepernick now in the mix, we are going to keep seeing surrounding players optimize their skill set. The quarterback has been a boost already and will continue to ascend as he nurtures a chemistry with his receivers.
It is a very balanced group with proven veterans and an influx of talented youth.
Moreover, the 49ers brought in these younger receivers, perhaps to allow themselves leverage with Crabtree. This leads us to our next and final nugget on San Francisco’s No. 1 wideout.
Is He a 49er-Lifer?
For a star player, there does appear to be a disconnect between Michael Crabtree and the world outside the 49ers. He has displayed a low-key personality as he does not talk a lot or attempt to form a relationship with media or fans.
To Crabtree, “it's just football,” and he is simply here to do his job—and that’s commendable.
With that said, the 49ers' No. 1 wideout has a contract coming up, as do many others on the team, exceeding their pay grade. However, in terms of importance, the former first-rounder is near the top of the list.
This may present inherent challenges.
It is no secret that Crabtree is the most stylish player on the roster. It is well documented that he likes nice things and nice things cost money. He has also been recognized as an extremely confident individual, whether it is in his look or skills on the field.
From the view of a front office, these are a few things that may signify a potential candidate for a holdout. And in Crabtree’s case, it could perhaps lead to an eventual change of scenery if he is unwilling to be flexible.
On the other hand, it is also known that Crabtree has a distaste for losing.
He, like several other core members of the 49ers, lost for years (14-18 in 2009-2010). He knows that feeling and understands what it is like to be part of a dysfunctional team that lacks any semblance of a vision.
Now, Crabtree can have his dream salary if he is willing to endure that again, seeing as how the teams with bankroll are typically the bottom-dwellers that are picking at the top of the draft annually.
Frankly, the 49ers won’t have No. 1 money to give, and even if they did, they would refrain from doing so anyhow because it is not their philosophy. The team will not overpay for receivers, just like New England and Green Bay refuse.
Although, when projecting figures for his next deal, they’re among the highest in the league, per Spotrac.
According to 49ers' writer/cap guru Jason Hurley, the receiver will be looking for a deal comparable to Vincent Jackson (five years, $55.5 million), Dwayne Bowe (five years, $56 million) or Mike Wallace (five years, $60 million).
If Crabtree has a repeat performance—or improves, as many expect—he will command what the top receivers are making.
Of course, there are certain risk-rewards he will have to factor in when making his ultimate decision. In all likelihood, the scenario comes about where Crabtree can take the money and gives up being on a winning team or stay for less.
Again, if he leaves, he risks throwing away playing with a potentially all-time great quarterback, per Matt Maiocco. All the while, he would be turning his nose to what may be a dynastic run that includes multiple opportunities at a Super Bowl.
With Jim Harbaugh and the foundation he has laid, the 49ers look to be perennial contenders for the next half-decade, at least. And when it comes to Crabtree’s rapport with Kaepernick, No. 15 has to remember that you cannot plan for chemistry.
If he stays, it’s because he wants to do something historic in San Francisco.
When it comes to Michael Crabtree, it is like the 49ers took the reins off another thoroughbred; the sky is the limit.
Late playcalling was iffy for SF, but Crabtree has been one of safest places to go with ball this year. QB rating of 123.4 targeting him— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) February 4, 2013
Dylan DeSimone is the San Francisco 49ers' lead columnist for Bleacher Report. A former NFL journalist and fantasy football writer for SB Nation, Niners Nation and SB Nation Bay Area, Dylan now writes for B/R.
To talk football with Dylan, follow him on Twitter @DeSimone80.