The alarmist speculation eventually died, right around the time NFL coaches finally got deep into the stack of tapes on Michael Crabtree, each compiled by meticulous scouting departments. Seattle Seahawks coach Jim Mora chewed his way through some of the film before heading to the league's annual meetings in late March – roughly three weeks after Crabtree had successful surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left foot.
It left the coach with a realization: the former Texas Tech wide receiver might be the best player in the upcoming NFL draft. And it may not even be that close of a debate.
Less than two weeks remain before the league's annual selection process is set to commence in New York starting April 25, and one of the most prized commodities has also been relegated to one of the most mysterious. While the Detroit Lions' No. 1 overall pick continues to be a point of debate – quarterback Matt Stafford from Georgia vs. former Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith – a quiet intrigue has built around Crabtree. He goes into the draft armed with devastatingly impressive game tape, but no workouts thanks to his left foot. But as decision time nears, the pendulum of opinion has apparently swung away from the concern demonstrated when Crabtree's stress fracture was discovered at the scouting combine in February.
"With a guy like Michael, he's put enough great plays on tape that demonstrate not only speed, but explosion, burst, change of direction, elusiveness as a runner after the catch, things like that," Mora said. "If you get to the point where you decide he's the guy you want to select, you can justify making that selection without seeing his [final] 40 [-yard dash] time."
Of the top eight teams in the draft, only Detroit and the Kansas City Chiefs have shown relatively limited interest in Crabtree. In some ways, that makes him one of the most anticipated keys at the top of the draft. The St. Louis Rams, who hold the No. 2 overall pick and have at least a moderate need at wideout, have visited with Crabtree. If they were to go with the receiver, it could potentially cause one of the top two offensive tackles – likely Virginia's Eugene Monroe – to trickle down into the bottom of top 10 picks.
And that might not be a shock by draft day, considering the momentum Crabtree has built in recent weeks. The renewed affection has come for two major reasons. First, teams have been encouraged by the successful surgery, which was performed by renowned foot specialist Dr. Robert Anderson. Anderson also performed foot surgery on the Carolina Panthers' Jonathan Stewart in the run-up to last year's draft, and accurately predicted that Stewart would be healthy enough to play in 2008. He has given the same green light with Crabtree, who is expected to be a full participant in training camp by the end of July.
Crabtree's status has also been bolstered by the draft process. As teams have gotten better looks at the prospects at the top of their board, the so-called "elite" shelf of players hasn't been as rich as some had hoped. One NFC personnel man suggested that it has settled on four players – Stafford, Smith, Crabtree and former Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry. And of that four, the personnel man added that "Curry and Crabtree are the only players in that group with back-to-back [seasons] of what you would call consistent dominance."
Even some of Crabtree's potential liabilities have been shrugged off. While he measured out at just above 6-foot-1 – smaller than the 6-3 teams had hoped for – smitten coaches and executives are quick to point out that Crabtree's arms are an amazingly long 34¼ inches. That's almost two inches longer than the Denver Broncos' 6-4 Brandon Marshall, and almost an inch longer than Detroit's 6-5 Calvin Johnson.
Some have even brushed off his perceived lack of top-notch speed. Before surgery, scouts had expected to see Crabtree run in the low to mid 4.5 second range in the 40-yard dash.
"The only speed issue I've seen so far is him running by people, so I'm not sure what speed issue you're talking about," Cleveland Browns general manager George Kokinis said. "I think when he does time eventually, you match it to the tape, to his competition, and you try to project it against NFL corners. I'm not too concerned about Michael's speed because right now on tape I see him running pretty good."
Added Mora: "Two guys that come to mind for me are Michael Irvin and Jerry Rice. Neither of those guys were known as speed guys, yet they were both Hall of Famers and productive in their own way. I think it would be hard to find a lot of tape where Jerry Rice is getting caught from behind."
And the concern that Crabtree had ample opportunities to put up gaudy numbers in Texas Tech's pass-happy offense? It's actually a non-issue. Unlike system quarterbacks, wideout is an isolated position that provides tape which translates easily to the NFL. A player's ability to catch, block, run routes, display body control and balance has virtually nothing to do with play-calling. So the quality behind Crabtree's two Biletnikoff Award-winning seasons, which produced 3,127 receiving yards and 41 touchdowns, is undeniable.
"We did blocking," Crabtree said. "We did a lot of routes. That's probably an advantage over regular receivers, learning all those routes [in the spread offense]. The only thing I'll have to adjust to is probably blocking, which I've been working real hard on that since the end of last season. I had a good blocking season, so it shouldn't be a problem."
Ultimately, the final question may come down to how comfortable teams are with Crabtree's health. Earlier this decade, teams passed on current Browns defensive tackle Shaun Rogers because of offseason surgery that kept him from working out for teams. He went from being a potential top 15 pick to the end of the second round, but ultimately proved to be a Pro Bowl talent. Last season, some teams removed Oregon's Stewart from their draft boards entirely for the same reason, and he responded by playing in all 16 regular-season games, rushing for 836 yards and 10 touchdowns.
"You've got to evaluate him where you like him in the mix as a player, not considering the injury," said Panthers coach John Fox. "And then you do your research. Just like you researched him as a player, you research the medical portion. Try to be as familiar as you can be with the injury, what are the long-term effects of the injury and when he's going to be ready.
"A guy might have to be a project, might have to be a guy that goes for a year. There's been guys taken like that. With us [and Stewart], we felt real comfortable with the medical knowledge and we felt real comfortable about the kind of player he was. …[We were sold] the minute we found out that he'd be healthy, and healthy as early as that coming season. I think that's what most people want to know."
- Michael Crabtree