The Michael Crabtree dilemma: Should the 49ers invest long term in the wide receiver?

Al Sacco
Feb 26, 2014 at 9:11 AM21

The San Francisco 49ers face major dilemmas on some of their core players as Colin Kaepernick, Aldon Smith, Mike Iupati and Michael Crabtree will all see their original rookie contracts expire after the 2014 season (Smith does have an option for 2015 should the team choose to exercise it). While all of these players have been key components to San Francisco's success the past three years, it's unlikely they will be able to keep every one of them in the fold due to salary cap restrictions. Each possible contract extension will present it's own pros and cons and the 49ers will have to weigh them against what is best for the team. As they do this, they may find that no situation presents more of a dilemma than that of Crabtree.

Given his history, one could assume that Crabtree will want top dollar in his next deal. The question is, has he earned it? Through five seasons in the NFL, Crabtree has played in 16 games twice (2010, 2012) and only broken the 1,000 yard mark once (2012). He has scored more than four touchdowns in a season on just two occasions. Even if you take injuries (and holdouts) out of the picture and look at his average production over 16 games, he comes in below the bar for a dominant receiver. Through his career, Crabtree averages 70 receptions, 921 yards and five touchdowns over a 16 game slate. He has also never been selected to the Pro Bowl or an All Pro team.

Those in Crabtree's camp can make arguments for his value to the 49ers despite of his numbers. For starters, the 49ers had issues at quarterback during his first two seasons as Alex Smith was still struggling and replaced for part of the 2010 season. Even when Smith started to play well in 2011, he still wasn't the type of quarterback who was going to throw for big yardage. Smith threw for 3144 yards in 2011 which was the fewest for any quarterback who started all 16 games that year. Even during Smith's Pro Bowl season of 2013 in which he averaged 220 yards passing a game with Kansas City, his top wide receiver (Dwayne Bowe) only managed 673 yards. Taking that into account, it's possible Crabtree's lack of production was more quarterback/system driven than performance driven.

To support this theory, you only have to look at Crabtree's numbers once Kaepernick took over in 2012. In the last five regular season games that season, Crabtree caught 35 of the new quarterback's passes for 538 yards and four touchdowns. He went on to catch another 20 in the playoffs for 285 yards and three scores. If you take that production over a 16 game season, the receiver would have had 110 receptions, 1646 yards and 14 touchdowns.

One could also lobby in Crabtree's defense by stating that he is more clutch than his numbers would indicate. In 2012, he caught 32 passes on third down and 24 of them were converted to firsts. Only four players saw more than his 49 targets on third and fourth down and his five third down scores were tied for most in the league. A reason for his success in this department is what Crabtree can do after the catch. His 543 yards after making the reception was the fourth highest in the NFL and accounted for 49.1 percent of his receiving yards.

What will also work for Crabtree is the fact that the 49ers have no one else to replace him. Even if Anquan Boldin resigns, it will be for the short term and he doesn't have many years left given his age (33). The only other viable option currently on the 49ers' roster is Quinton Patton and he is, at best, unproven. Barring a rookie coming in and making a big impact, the 49ers would either need to retain Crabtree or make a push for a receiver outside of the organization either through free agency or via a trade.

Whether you are in his camp or think it would be best for he and the 49ers to part ways, there is no denying that 2014 is a huge year for Crabtree and his overall evaluation. All the momentum from his 2012 breakout was washed away by the Achilles' injury that cost him most of 2013, and the receiver was not 100 percent upon returning late in the year. This upcoming season should answer the question of whether or not he is worth a large contract, but salary cap restraints may be what dictates if the 49ers are the team who gives it to him.

It's quite the dilemma.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Marty
    If things goes bad this season look for major changes. You know Crabtree will demand a big contract like his rookies contract. Ever though he never earned it. Their seems to be chaos in the 49ers front office. Picking up all these old receivers, with a roster filled with young potentially good players. 49ers coaching staff can't develop young players, the last three years have shown this. Than throw in the struggle of the offense & their QB. And you have Baalke who keeps accumulating draft choices & wants to build thru youth. I expect fireworks when the 49ers start having to release players in the preseason. Harbaugh will want the old, slow players & Baalke will fight to keep the young players. 49ers gave away young players, like Daniels, Cooper & Gray to keep old players. These old players aren't even on the 49ers roster this season.
    Apr 16, 2014 at 8:12 AM
  • JJtruth
    Let go a "sorry receiver" like Crabtree. Boldin is better and there are plenty of players better than Crabtree who will be avaliable. Don't pay the bum. He's not leading receiver material.
    Mar 17, 2014 at 10:08 PM
  • D. Smith
    Crabtree has been our best receiver since getting drafted! The real investment is Kap, his new deal should be incentive laiden. Crabtree should be retained because of what he brings to the offense. People say he's not a speed guy, nor was J. Rice, Irving, fitzgerald or Owens. Speed is nice but it's not the total package, Crabtree is fast enough, strong enough , excellent route runner and outstanding hands. I just hope the Niners don't invest in a guy who can't read defenses and forces passes to guys who aren't open! The risk isn't resigning Crabtree guys.............
    Mar 10, 2014 at 12:18 PM
  • niner
    cant see crabtree staying if they draft well this year. ( fingers crossed, their wr coaches and scouts are really really bad) Harbaugh putting his bs aside knows crabtree doesnt have the greatest hands in the universe ( couldnt hold rices athletic supporter), if we believe his nonsense we would have aj jenkins and crabtree in the hof already. we need some young wrs who can work with Kap as he really isnt that accurate or throw a catchable ball . ( see brady montana brees etc...) and you cant pay the kind of money to crabtree that he wants. Its time to move on.
    Mar 4, 2014 at 8:45 AM
  • AZ9er
    Crabs is too much like Boldin. A possesion receiver. He can be good. But he's not a great receiver. Boldin is a little long in the tooth. It might been better to not sign him, because he blocks Patton or other guys from developing. Walsh was good about not hanging on to players. They might have some left. But they got to keep the team young. Or it will fade away. I would release Crabs. Force Kap to look for others guys. Kaps is asking for 18mil. Really. Stats show he's bottom of QBs. He hasn't carried the team like Brady or Luck, came back to win games down multiple scores. Need to draft an under study in case, this experiment doesn't pan out.
    Mar 3, 2014 at 2:04 PM
  • T
    Make a competitive offer, same with Iupati but don't overpay. Resign Boldin 2 years @ 6 million per, he earned it. Draft a potential starter with one of our 1st 3 picks, sign a capable free agent. Next year we're going into camp with Crabs, #81, Vernon, Vance, Patton, a stud rookie , Osgood, a quality free agent. More than enough going into the future . If we overpay for Crabs or anyone , it hinders our ability to adapt.
    Mar 2, 2014 at 1:16 PM
  • Don
    Perhaps Richard Sherman should do the negotiating for SF.. In all seriousness you have to base your decision on next year's play. He definitely made a difference once back in the lineup late last season..
    Mar 2, 2014 at 1:12 PM
  • Ron
    Crab is probably a top 10-15 receiver.... But more importantly two items..... Kap loves him like a baby loves his bottle and any draft choice has growing pains... Crab is peaking in his potential. Get a fast big strong receiver in round two and offer Crab 4 years 18 million guaranteed.
    Feb 28, 2014 at 6:39 AM
  • Lucky Phil
    Al, Here are my thoughts. Crabtree has got to go. That's it. That's what I'm thinking... I say we role the dice this year. We have no depth at WR. Next year Crabs is going to hold us to kings ransom to sign him because no one seems to want to replace or even provide depth behind him. Here's what I do if I'm TB. I probably can't trade up for Watkins (top five pk) to rich and bold for the organization. I stick with my 1st rd'er and draft J Matthews, trade my 2 2nd rd'ers for D Moncrief, trade Crabs for a CB, and use my 3 rd picks on B. Ellington, G Atkinson and a Safety. Sign Boldin and Whitner with the money we save letting Crabs go. Let Boldin work with the 4 wr's we draft, 2 will work out and the others won't be worth a turd. That's just how it is with receivers. How do feel about this, Al?
    Feb 27, 2014 at 9:17 AM
    Response: Dont believe there's anyway he gets traded because I think they are going all in this season for another shot at a title, knowing that 2015 will bring about changes. This draft is a big one though for sure. They have to get some capable WR's in fold or they could have some issues after 2014. We saw how much Kaep struggled with limited weapons early on.
  • Bayboy79
    I think they should keep Crabtree because he is a much better receiver than his numbers over the past two seasons indicate. So he should be relatively cheap still. His hands are unbelievable and he has a passion to excel and put up big numbers. I'm pretty sure 2013 would've been a monster season for Crabtree if not for the achilles injury. That's just how things go sometimes when you have big plans and eyes set on a huge payday. You get humbled real fast.
    Feb 27, 2014 at 7:10 AM
  • Marty
    First off, if the 49ers don't redo his deal going into his 6th season that should tell you something. Crabtree knows this might be his last chance for another big payday. The 49ers know this as well. Like Goldson, I think the 49ers have already decided to move on. Next question is,Kaepernick strength is his strong arm. Other than Davis, no other receiver has the speed to take advantage of Kaep's big arm. Crabtree has no speed, never makes the big play & is constantly covered. No way he should get another big payday.
    Feb 27, 2014 at 4:50 AM
  • A Sena
    Keep Crabtree it would be a big mistake to get rid of him
    Feb 26, 2014 at 11:59 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    Feb 26, 2014 at 1:57 PM
  • Tristan F
    I love Crab, I think you do everything you can to keep him. He is the youngest of all our starting skill positions that include, Gore, Davis, and Boldin. Kaepernick has already made it clear that he trusts Crab, and I think the last half of each of the last 2 seasons are telling. Is he worth top 10 money? NO. But you do everything you can to keep him if it's paying him in the next tier.
    Feb 26, 2014 at 12:59 PM
  • AZ9er
    Don't think Crabs is an elite WR. We should let him go. Force Kap to look elsewhere. Draft Moncrief and Bryant (tall) and slot guy, Archer? Or use James there.
    Feb 26, 2014 at 12:34 PM
  • Tennille
    Kap and Aldon are worth it...we have to keep the same defense in my opinion. Defenses win games..period
    Feb 26, 2014 at 12:19 PM
  • jpitts420
    I know he has a had hard time staying healthy, but our track record of drafting a WR is poor so I would be more in favor of resigning Crabtree and letting Iupati walk. We don't know what this team is going to be like once Frank Gore is no longer running the ball. We may have to become more of pass first team.
    Feb 26, 2014 at 12:19 PM
  • Woodenickel
    Crabtree wanted to go to Dallas in the worst way. I can see him signing with Dallas for a song.
    Feb 26, 2014 at 12:14 PM
  • Edd
    It is hard to evaluate a WR on a run-first team. I would love to see them keep Crabtree, but I dont believe he merits top dollar. If somebody else wants to overpay, let him go.
    Feb 26, 2014 at 11:00 AM
  • Matt One
    I'd be very surprised to see the Niners signing all four (Kaep, Aldon, Ilupati, and Crabtree) to long term contracts. In a good scenario, if they choose to sign three and let one go; the person to let go has to be Crabtree. Good arguments can be made for him on either side, but his oft-injured status just doesn't warrant a big contract. It makes it more crucial for the Niners to draft a "can't miss" WR in 2014. With Boldin most likely getting a short term contract, it'd give the Niners a bit of time to get an additional WR in 2015 or in free agency.
    Feb 26, 2014 at 10:35 AM
  • Frank
    Al, It could well come down to who do you keep, Iupati or Crabtree. Both are integral to the team's success...but, the team has talented OL waiting for their shot. If Looney doesn't replace Goodwin, then I'd say he's the guy to replace Iupati. Crabtree, on the other hand, would be harder to replace, especially given the chemistry he and Kap have. So, I'd say MC is the guy they need to keep. Baalke needs to draft a Moncrief or similar WR now, so Harbaugh has the pieces he needs in the passing game.
    Feb 26, 2014 at 9:55 AM
    Response: Missing on Jenkins really hurt the team. You would have to assume they were hoping he could take that number one type role in the passing game but...well we all know what happened...

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