In Week 13, Michael Crabtree played his first game since suffering a complete rupture of his Achilles tendon last May. While facing the St. Louis Rams, Crabtree was targeted four times for two receptions and 68 receiving yards. This performance leaves one question for Crabtree’s fantasy owners: Is he back to his previous form?
After finishing the best season of his career in 2012, Crabtree suffered a complete Achilles tendon rupture at an organized team activity on May 21, 2013. His ruptured Achilles was surgically repaired on the following day, and he began his rehabilitation process shortly thereafter.
The treating physicians projected a six-month timetable for his return to play; it was nearly a dead-on forecast. Crabtree was medically cleared to practice on November 5, almost five-and-a-half months after the surgery.
Once he returned to practice, there was—and continues to be—uncertainty as to whether Crabtree would return to his prior ability level. If the Achilles tendon was not completely structurally sound, he would have had significantly less plantar flexion (extending the foot at the ankle joint) power production and kinetic-force transfer from his lower extremity to the ground. This would limit his sprinting, jumping and cutting capacities.
There is a valid reason for the concern: Among the NFL players that have recently suffered an Achilles tendon rupture, those who returned to play had an average reduction in their power ratings (comprehensive equation to measure game production) by nearly 50 percent, according to a study by Parekh SG et al. This means the players had a significant decline in overall performance.
The first true test for the structural integrity of Crabtree’s surgically repaired Achilles occurred in Week 13, his first game back since injury. He was able to run near full-speed, able to make sharp cuts off the foot and showed no signs of pain. All are goods signs of his progress.
However, Crabtree looked rusty in certain aspects. He ran many imprecise routes, had two unnecessary penalties and was not able to run at his full speed of yesteryear.
Overall, Crabtree looked good for his first game back. He was able to sprint past the St. Louis secondary on a hitch-and-go route for a 60-yard gain. He also made many good blocks during running plays—which will earn him even more playing time.
Crabtree’s work capacity was also inspiring. He was able to play 42 of 67 snaps (62.6 percent) in Week 13 without any noticeable setbacks.
One of the major concerns about Crabtree’s fantasy potential is the amount of targets he had in Week 13 (four). It appears the San Francisco coaching staff is hesitant to increase Crabtree’s workload to his pre-injury levels too soon—and for good reason. If Crabtree has any setbacks now, he could miss the remainder of the season.
Since becoming the 49ers' starting quarterback in 2012, Colin Kaepernick targeted Crabtree an average of 8.9 times per game; this means Crabtree has been targeted less than half the amount of times he was in the prior season. However, in the coming weeks, Crabtree’s targets will return to this level, barring any setbacks.
His remaining schedule is fair following Week 14 against the Seattle Seahawks, the No. 1 ranked passing defense (fewest passing yards allowed per game) in the league: at Tampa Bay (18th), vs. Atlanta (20th) and at Arizona (16th).
From another perspective, Crabtree’s final three regular-season games are against opponents that have aggregately given up an above-average amount of fantasy points to opposing wide receivers. Both Tampa Bay and Atlanta are in the bottom half of the league in this statistic. Arizona, on the other hand, is ranked fifth.
It’s worth noting, there is one caveat regarding the matchup against Tampa Bay: If Darrelle Revis (the No. 1 rated 2013 NFL cornerback by Pro Football Focus metrics) is believed to cover Crabtree, then he will have a poor fantasy day. On the other hand, if Revis is not expected to cover Crabtree, then he will be a top-10 wide receiver for the week. Excluding Revis, Tamp Bay is that bad in pass coverage.
All signs show that Crabtree’s surgery and rehab were a success. His on-field production will continue to increase in the upcoming weeks.
During the fantasy playoffs (Week 14-17 in standard formats), Crabtree should be benched in Week 14 against the Seattle Seahawks. However, in Week 15 and beyond, he should be started confidently as a high-upside No. 2 wide receiver or flex player.