SANTA CLARA, Calif. – For a 22-year-old experiencing his first NFL training camp, Michael Crabtree(notes) sure is comfortable with his place in the San Francisco 49ers' pantheon. Having dispensed with the contentious contract dispute that cost him a third of his rookie campaign like Jay-Z flicking a speck of dirt off his shoulder, Crabtree has his sights set on becoming the best wideout in his profession.
"This is the year I'm aiming for everybody that's in front of me," he said Monday after a charged Niners practice at the team's training facility. "I'm working hard every day, just trying to make my team and myself better and to get to the top of the list."
Crabtree is already held in high esteem by his teammates and 49ers coach Mike Singletary, a somewhat shocking development given the drama that preceded his belated 2009 debut. That's because the 10th overall pick of last year's draft did enough over the season's final 11 games (48 receptions, 625 yards, two touchdowns) to justify the franchise's faith in his abilities.
Now, as the presumptive No. 1 wideout on a potential breakthrough team – the Niners have emerged as a trendy pick to win the NFC West and return to the playoffs for the first time in eight years – Crabtree is experiencing the summer of love that eluded him as a rookie.
"I still don't think the league fully understands what he did last year and how incredible that was," Singletary said Monday. "And the exciting thing is, he's going to continue to progress."
Singletary and his players weren't sure what they'd get when Crabtree finally accepted the team's six-year, $32-million contract offer last Oct. 7. As the last member of his draft class to sign, by far, the former Texas Tech star and two-time Biletnikoff Award winner as college football's top receiver didn't garner much public sympathy during his holdout.
Even the dispute's ultimate resolution bordered on the farcical: One of the advisors who accompanied Crabtree and his agent, Eugene Parker, to the final negotiating sessions was former rap star Hammer. The eye-rolls ended in the San Francisco locker room when Crabtree showed up for his first practice and treated the Niners' defensive backs to an updated version of "U Can't Touch This.".
"He was away forever," Niners tackle Joe Staley(notes) recalled, "and some guys were expecting him to be out of shape and not really know the playbook. But the dude came in and balled, and he knew [his assignments]. It was evident right away why he was [considered] the best receiver in the draft. He's an intelligent guy, a good kid, and he made his mark right away."
Crabtree also impressed a somewhat skeptical Singletary, who had spoken to the player "a couple of times" during the protracted standoff.
"When he came in, I didn't really know what to expect," Singletary recalled. "It was a huge question. He'd told me, 'Coach, I'm working my tail off.' I thought, 'Wow – if he's doing what he says he's doing, he's going to be in pretty decent shape.' I just wanted to see what he thought 'working out' was.
"It turned out he'd been studying his tail off and was in tremendous condition, and you could hear it in his voice that he was hungry. From the first practice, it was evident that he was something special. Guys were buzzing about him. He won them over."
That process continued in Crabtree's first game when, exactly six months after he was drafted, he started and caught five passes for 56 yards in a 24-21 defeat to the Texans in Houston. That was the game in which Alex Smith displaced Shaun Hill(notes) as the Niners' No. 1 quarterback by leading a second-half comeback, and the two developed an instant chemistry. The 6-foot-1, 214-pound Crabtree caught at least three passes in every game and led all NFL rookies with 56.8 receiving yards per outing.
49ers WR Michael Crabtree runs a route during minicamp.
(Kyle Terada/US Presswire)
2009 first-round wideouts
A look at how rookie receivers fared.
|Darrius Heyward-Bey (Raiders)||7||9||124||1|
|Michael Crabtree (Niners)||10||48||625||2|
|Jeremy Maclin (Eagles)||19||55||762||4|
|Percy Harvin (Vikings)||22||60||790||6|
|Hakeem Nicks (Giants)||29||47||790||6|
|Kenny Britt (Titans)||30||42||701||3|
"He picks things up fast," Smith said. "Some guys just kind of have the football feel. He's a very instinctive, natural receiver. He has great hands and body control, and he sort of naturally comes back to the ball, which makes the quarterback look good."
This season Crabtree figures to make former Niners general manager Scot McCloughan look good while delivering comeuppance to the critics who called him a soft, spoiled diva primed for NFL failure.
"I've been through a lot of stuff," he said Monday. "I mean, a lot of stuff. All these people have opinions on you. They want to find dirt on you so bad. They fail to realize, I'm a football player. That's what I do. There's too many people in this world. You can't please everybody. I just try to stay in my lane. My lane is playing football."
This year, Crabtree figures to enjoy life in the fast lane. Though Smith, the No. 1 overall pick of the '05 draft, has yet to live up to billing, he'll have several enticing options at his behest in 2010. Tight end Vernon Davis(notes) enjoyed a breakout season in '09 – he caught 13 TD passes, tying for the league lead and matching Antonio Gates'(notes) single-season record for a tight end – and made his first Pro Bowl. Halfback Frank Gore(notes), who made his second Pro Bowl last season, will shoot for a fifth consecutive 1,000-yard campaign against defenses that can no longer afford to make him the focal point of their game plans.
Said Crabtree: "Man, having Frank Gore, that's just a whole bunch of bullets in your gun. If he runs the ball all day and they stack the box, that's giving us the opportunity to make plays. Last year they were really keying on [Davis]. This year they're going to have to open their eyes a little more."
Davis said he and Crabtree frequently discuss their ability to enhance one another's realities while making life miserable for defenders.
"We talk about it all the time, even in the huddle," Davis said. "I say, 'Hey, Crab, you already know what it is. They can't stop us.' Throw in our other weapons, and it's over. What are they gonna do? There ain't nothing they can do. It's over."
And Crabtree's summer of discontent is but a distant memory.