2013 was a forgettable year for Michael Crabtree.
The San Francisco 49ers wide receiver missed the first 11 games of the regular season. He was productive when he played, but most will remember his final postseason play, when a Colin Kaepernick pass intended for him was intercepted by the Seattle Seahawks.
That, of course, led to Richard Sherman ripping Crabtree in a postgame interview.
The 2014 season will mark an important chapter in Crabtree's career.
No. 15 is entering his first contract year with a lot to prove to his critics and NFL front offices. His performance will make a big difference in how much he gets paid (assuming he doesn't get an extension before the season starts).
Let's take a look at Crabtree's strengths and weaknesses and set some expectations for him.
Crabtree's biggest strength is his run-after-the-catch ability.
He ranked fifth in the NFL in YAC (yards after catch) in 2012. Scroll to 1:25 and 2:05 of the video below for two examples of this:
Crabtree also has great hands. Of qualified receivers, he ranked seventh in drop rate in 2012, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He makes difficult catches in traffic, and he hasn't shown any issues hauling in Kaepernick's bullet throws.
His route running has always been one of his best talents. Despite having just average speed (more on that later), he tends to gain separation with great technique and deceptiveness.
Crabtree doesn't have a major weakness in his game. He's physical enough to beat press cornerbacks yet shifty enough to get open against speedy defensive backs.
But there are a couple of areas that hold him back from time to time.
There are two minor weaknesses in Crabtree's game. First is his top-end speed.
By no means is Crabtree slow. But when compared to some of the fastest elite receivers, such as Calvin Johnson and Julio Jones, Crabtree is a step off the pace.
So, when matched up one-on-one against Sherman in the NFC title game against the Seahawks, Crabtree got barely any separation. I'm not blaming the interception on him—the ball was a few inches underthrown, and Sherman made a great play tipping it to Malcolm Smith—but the play illustrates how Crabtree often doesn't blow past cornerbacks.
Speed isn't a correctable issue. Crabtree is not suddenly going to get faster when he turns 27 in September. But where he could improve is in the red zone.
In 63 career regular-season games, Crabtree has scored 22 touchdowns. Only seven of the those TDs have gone for 10 yards or fewer.
Part of this is poor quarterback play in the red zone. But Crabtree and his average 6'1" frame are also part of the issue. An example of this is San Francisco's failed 4th-and-goal play in Super Bowl XLVII.
It looks like Crabtree is running a stop-fade, but Kaepernick instead throws a normal fade. Holding or not, the miscommunication can't happen at that point in the season. Even with the miscommunication, a taller receiver might have come down with the pass.
Overall, how many times have you seen Crabtree outjump a cornerback for a ball? My answer: not many. If he wants to record double-digit touchdowns in 2014, he'll have to be more productive in the red zone.
How good can he be?
In the last eight games of the 2012 season (playoffs included), Crabtree had 832 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. If those numbers are extrapolated over a 16-game regular season, Crabtree would be in Calvin Johnson-stats territory.
What made Crabtree so good down the stretch was his chemistry with Kaepernick.
Back in November, Bleacher Report's Dylan DeSimone wrote this about their connection:
Crabtree was targeted double-digit times in six of his last eight games (of 2012) and caught a high percentage of those footballs. The proof is in the pudding. Kap and Crab have some sort of symbiotic connection on the field, which has resulted in a number of effortless plays that defenses seem powerless to stop.
In the eight games (playoffs included) that Crabtree participated in during the 2013 season, he didn't seem to have that same chemistry with Kap. Crabtree's catch rate dropped 13.3 percent from the previous season.
Part of the loss of efficiency is on Kaepernick. He wasn't as accurate in his second season as a starter.
But Crabtree didn't seem as explosive, either. It's possible that he didn't fully recover from the torn Achilles in May.
With an offseason to get back to full strength, Crabtree should be 100 percent during the 2014 season.
And fully healthy, Crabtree should have no problem building on his 2012 season. At minimum, he'll top 80 catches and 1,000 yards.
If the 49ers lose Anquan Boldin and Kaepernick takes a step forward, Crabtree will likely destroy those floor projections.
More importantly, it's his efficiency that will improve to 2012 levels with or without Boldin. That efficiency—he had the fourth-best wide receiver rating in 2012, per PFF—is what made him one of the best up-and-coming receivers in the NFL.
And it's why Crabtree could enter top-10-receiver territory in 2014.