Based on NinersNation comments in the last few weeks, it seems like we've split into two camps on Michael Crabtree: one group who thinks Crabtree didn't play very well last season, and one group who thinks other factors are to blame for his lackluster numbers (Alex Smith, the 49ers run-heavy offense, his below-average teammates at wide receivers, etc). So here's my attempt to add some numbers to this debate, by comparing Michael Crabtree to receivers who found themselves in the same situation as him in 2011. Here's how I picked which receivers to compare Crabs to:
- They had to have led their team in targets. We're looking at #1 wide receivers, since they are the ones who draw the best corners like Crabtree does.
- They played with non-elite QBs, like Alex Smith. To that end, anyone playing with a Pro Bowl QB is eliminated (Brady, Big Ben, Rivers, Dalton, Rodgers, Brees, Manning). I also removed anyone playing with Tony Romo or Matthew Stafford. Both of those guys are pretty good.
- They were on teams that don't throw the ball much. I narrowed my search to receivers who played for teams that passed for less than 4,000 yards in the regular season.
- They did not have Pro Bowl pass-catchers playing next them. Crabtree doesn't have much help out there, other than Vernon Davis, who had a down season this year before the playoffs started.
- They are all-around receivers. Crabtree runs short, intermediate, and deep routes -- so I wanted to compare him to receivers who did the same. Players like A.J. Green, who mostly runs deep routes, and Percy Harvin, who mostly plays in the slot, we're taken off the list. This criteria is a little subjective, I admit.
- They had to have at least 100 targets. Sample size is important.
After all that, I was left with ten receivers along with Crabtree and Davis. Their stats are below:
A few notes on the numbers i used: All stats are from AdvancedNFLStats.com. Targets is the number of balls thrown at a particular receiver, according to the NFL. I listed targets instead of receptions, because I think targets is a better statistic for evaluating receivers. Target stats account for drops, interceptions, poorly run routes, throwaways, and pretty much every play that a receiver is involved in. YPT is Yards per Target, which is simply total yards/total targets. CR% is Catch Rate, calculated by Catches/Targets. And finally, YOC is Yards over Crabtree, which calculates how many more or less yards a receiver would get if they were targeted 130 times, like Crabtree was this season.
As the numbers show, seven receivers in similar positions to Crabtree had better seasons than him. Boldin, Marshall, Washington, Gaffney, Bowe, Stevie, and Wayne played with average QBs in conservative offenses, yet they would have all gained more yards than Crabtree did based on Yards per Target. You'll notice that three of those receivers (Bowe, Stevie, and Wayne) are all on the open market this offseason, and based on these numbers, they would all be slight upgrades over Crabtree.
Crabtree wasn't terrible -- he was better that Lloyd, Little, and Williams, although all three of their quarterback situations are arguably worse than the 49ers'. Crabs also had a surprisingly high catch rate, which says good things about his hands. However, Davis also had a high catch rate, which makes me think that Alex Smith's propensity to take sacks instead of throwing jump balls may be inflating their catch rates.
To me, these numbers show what a lot of us were thinking -- that Crabtree is a good receiver, but he's far from elite. He would benefit from having a true number one receiver lined up next to him, possibly one of the seven receivers above who have shown that they can flourish with average quarterbacks. The 49ers can and should try to add more talent to the receiving corps to help Crabtree and the team out.