Why Michael Crabtree's Imminent Return Will Revitalize 49ers' Passing Attack

Tom Smeaton@ByTomSmeatonContributor IIINovember 7, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 12:  Wide receiver Michael Crabtree #15 of the San Francisco 49ers runs the ball against strong safety Morgan Burnett #42 of the Green Bay Packers during the NFC Divisional Playoff Game at Candlestick Park on January 12, 2013 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Bye-week bliss continues to blossom for the San Francisco 49ers, as top wide receiver Michael Crabtree is finally returning to the practice field. 

According to Taylor Price of 49ers.com, Crabtree was cleared to practice on Tuesday, just one day after the activation of fellow wideout Mario Manningham. Crabtree is trying to return from a torn right Achilles tendon in organized team activities that was surgically repaired by a procedure on May 22. 

Crabtree was the 49ers' unquestioned leading receiver in 2012, but there is reasonable doubt for his effectiveness for this season. After all, Achilles tendon injuries are no small deal for a player at a skill position.  

You don't have to be a doctor to understand that concern. 

Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas has since returned from a similar injury in 2011.
Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas has since returned from a similar injury in 2011.Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas suffered a similar injury in 2011, but needed some time to truly return to form, per to Marc Sessler of NFL.com. Thomas has indicated that it took him at least seven months to feel like the same player from before the injury.

While Thomas has had two excellent seasons since his return, that assurance won't do much for the 49ers in 2013. The Thomas comparison can be a useful, yet speculative barometer, but it's also important to remember that different bodies heal at different paces.

By league policy, Crabtree's return to practice leaves the 49ers with 21 days to promote No. 15 to the active roster. This projected return would put Crabtree around the six-month mark from surgery, due for a home contest against St. Louis looming on Dec. 1. 

While Crabtree's exact return date is pure speculation at this point, the 49ers are admittedly taking a cautious approach with their fifth-year receiver. According to Price, Crabtree will listen to his body before returning to live-game action. 

In the meantime, Manningham's return will provide a temporary boost to the receiving corps for three important upcoming matchups. After a visit from the Carolina Panthers (5-3) this weekend, the 49ers will travel to New Orleans (6-2) and Washington (3-5), with the latter on Monday Night Football

To be blunt, the 49ers' passing struggles have been well-documented this season. Watching tape of any game will show that the receivers have been a large factor in these issues. 

San Francisco 49ers Wide Receivers in 2013
Anquan Boldin385512
Kyle Williams111080
Jon Baldwin3280
Marlon Moore160
Quinton Patton100

Bill Williamson of ESPN.com graded the 49ers wideouts at a C+ in his midseason report card, and one could argue that even that is generous. Leading wideout Anquan Boldin's performance has drawn many double-teams, but only tight end Vernon Davis has been able to capitalize thus far.

While the team has run the ball effectively and outmuscled opponents in recent weeks, the No. 1 rushing attack in the league won't be able to dominate every game. Chase Stuart of The New York Times points out that the 49ers currently pass on only 44.2 percent of plays, lowest in the NFL

The 49ers passing game is statistically the worst in the league, and that doesn't happen by simply protecting big leads. The fact is this isn't a passing game that takes over a fourth-quarter comeback.

At least not at the moment. 

But Crabtree's return could change that. While it's unwise to trust Crabtree with the role he assumed last season, his return will push other members of the passing game into more appropriate spots. 

Boldin will finally benefit from additional legitimate receivers.
Boldin will finally benefit from additional legitimate receivers.Michael Thomas/Getty Images

Boldin will finally have a worthy starter on the opposite side, which also benefits Davis roaming over the middle. Manningham can then comfortably slide into the slot.

Moving Kyle Williams from No. 2 to No. 4 is also a huge improvement, if he even retains that position over injured rookie Quinton Patton. Either receiver has the skill set to make plays against a dime cornerback, but neither did enough to effectively man a starting role. 

All of this is not to say that Crabtree won't contribute individually, as the team wouldn't be allowing him on the field if he wasn't showing flashes of his former self. You simply can't doubt a receiver of his caliber, injury or not. 

Ultimately, however, Crabtree's true worth to this team will be seen in the overall numbers rather than in his own. Defenses will have to respect No. 15's presence on the field, which should open up the rest of the field for quarterback Colin Kaepernick

Can Crabtree be counted on for 10 catches and 100 or more yards in his debut? Probably not.

But if the 49ers can get him on the field and acclimated before December, watch out. In particular, a Week 14 faceoff with the Seattle Seahawks will play out very differently with the passing game closer to full strength. 


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