With a laundry list of offseason priorities, Michael Crabtree's contract situation stands out as one of the more intriguing ones. 2014 represents the final year of the former Texas Tech star's contract; he's due to make $3.5 million.
The Niners should be able to get a reasonable deal done with him...the operative word being should. After all, Crabtree has missed 17 games in his career, over a full season's worth, due to contract dispute and injury. Furthermore, he's only registered one 1,000+ yard performance during his first five years in the league. So while it appears the team would have sizable leverage in negotiating a fair deal, Crabtree's lengthy contract holdout as a rookie shouldn't be forgotten (you know, the one where he enlisted MC Hammer to help seal the deal). Plus, players aren't always practical or open to valid criticisms during negotiations.
I'm sure most fans would love to see Crabtree back after this season (I know I would). He is a talented player at a position of need for the 49ers, but what is his true value and what price will it take?
Here are some important things to consider in appraising the veteran wide receiver:
A recurring foot injury marred the first couple years of his career. Just this past year, he tore his Achilles before training camp even began. Crabtree's durability has definitely been an issue, especially for such a young player. That should raise some concern and red flags right off the bat.
2. He's not a game-breaker
Crabtree is a physical player. He's a solid blocker, he has great hands, and he finds creative ways to get extra yardage after the catch. What he is not is a game-changing wide receiver. You'd be hard pressed to find instances in which Crabtree outright won a game for San Francisco. There may have been a couple, if you dig deep enough but none jump to mind at first thought. The 49ers need that kind of player at wide receiver.
3. He doesn't "stretch the field"
I know, I know...the need for a "deep threat" is an exhausting, overstated cliché of fans and pundits but there is some merit to it in this discussion. San Francisco needs a player that can take advantage of Colin Kaepernick's cannon-arm and find daylight past the defense. The 49ers' current deep threat is their tight end, Vernon Davis. While his speed is nothing to slouch at, the Niners should have a wide receiver who can take the lid off of opposing defenses. Outside of Davis, the 49ers don't have a wide receiver who can blaze past the secondary and get open. While Roman's 70's style passing offense doesn't do the team any favors in this regard, it's also a product of the skill set the current crop has. Quinton Patton has great upside and could develop into that kind of player but the 49ers can't solely rely on a fourth round receiver with a 4.53 40-yard dash time.
4. Boldin should come cheaper, and brings a similar skill set
Boldin turned in the best year by a 49ers wide receiver since Terrell Owens amassed 1,300 regular season yards over a decade ago in 2002. Despite garnering a lot of defensive attention due to injuries to Crabtree and Vernon Davis (at times), Boldin registered a fantastic season at the age of 33, in his first year with the team. The grizzled veteran dominated several games, showing an incomparable ability to fight for tightly-contested balls and come away with the catch. While Crabtree can have great drives of his own and make his presence felt, as I said before I've never really seen him take over a game. Moreover, I've never seen him decide one in crunch time. To that end, I still can't wrap my head around why Kaepernick looked his way in tight coverage and tossed up off-target, gut-wrenching passes to him with the Super Bowl and NFC Championship game on the line. Crabtree has not demonstrated or earned the right to be the guy in that kind of situation yet (excluding his college career, of course). Boldin has. Why Kaepernick didn't look elsewhere, throw that ball away, or try to get the ball into No. 81's hands is beyond me, but I digress. Let's continue.
All things considered, it would be nice to have Crabtree back in San Francisco after this year to see how he develops. I know I've shed light on a handful of his shortcomings but he clearly brings a multitude of talent to the table as well. His strengths have been well-documented and I briefly touched on them earlier, so let's not belabor the obvious. With that said, there are significant advantages to retaining him. One of the strongest arguments is that Trent Baalke and the offensive coaching staff have yet to show they can develop a quality, or even serviceable, wide receiver. Quinton Patton could be the one to buck that nasty trend but time will tell. As of right now, the failures of A.J. Jenkins, Jon Baldwin, and the Braylon Edwards experiment loom large. Would this staff be prepared to part ways with a proven commodity like Crabtree? Do they have the capacity to adequately replace him?
The bottom line is this: Crabtree is a good wide receiver, maybe even a very good wide receiver...but he's not a great wide receiver, at least not yet. Thus, he should get paid like a good one; not a great one.
He still represents an unknown commodity. That's why there are plenty of valid reasons to both sides of the argument. Crabtree may or may not be the future at the position and making the wrong decision one way or another could be very costly. So far, he's been a solid weapon in the offense's arsenal.
There's no question the offense saw significant improvement once he was reinserted into the lineup, but think about it: did you ever notice when people talk about who you must stop on the 49ers offense, they mention Vernon Davis, Frank Gore, and Colin Kaepernick first? They follow that with, "...then you factor Michael Crabtree into the mix, and you have a bunch of offensive weapons to account for." Crabtree definitely gets his due, and rightfully so, but he's usually not one of the first names people mention on this offense.
Great wideouts are mentioned in that first breath. Players like Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones, Victor Cruz...these guys are game-changing wide receivers. They are the focal point of defensive scheming and game-planning. Their presence and position on the field has to be accounted for at all times. They can single-handedly win you games. Michael Crabtree, whether it's a lack of speed, the absence of some indefinable intangible, or potential that has yet to be fully realized, just hasn't shown to be that guy. He could be. Maybe he's right on the verge of peaking. After all, his numbers have gone up every season with the exception of this one (due to his injury). But the 49ers have a lot of different positions and players to commit dollars to.
There's a healthy dose of pride, ego, and cash at stake here, and Crabtree doesn't lack for confidence. Under Baalke, the 49ers have shown that they will not waver or deviate from the value they place on a player. If Crabtree's number is out of their range, I highly doubt they budge... and I doubt Crabtree budges either. There will be plenty of other suitors willing and able to meet his demands if he hits the open market.
Is 49ers brass all-in on Crabtree's production thus far and his upside for the future? If so, what kind of price tag do they put on it? Will they be rewarded with the performance of a top ten wideout; or will they be burned with a player who doesn't live up to the price and potential or, worse yet, an injury-riddled career?
Those are the questions going into this season for the 49ers front office and No. 15.