The tenth overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft, Michael Crabtree labored through three largely disappointing seasons to open his career. His reception and yardage numbers were increasing, but questions remained about Crabtree's viability as a true No. 1 wide receiver. A wideout who could beat defenses at the short, intermediate and deep levels, and run by coverage. Crabtree had shown soft hands, route-running chops, and some yards-after-catch skills. Entering 2012, at least, Crabtree appeared to be shaping up as a possession, No. 2-type receiver.
It was more of the same during last year's first seven games. The 49ers' run-based offense perhaps put a theoretical ceiling on Crabtree's production, as did Alex Smith's physical limitations. But Crabtree wasn't dynamic. He was solid, but not dynamic. He scored one touchdown over those first seven games and cleared 70 yards just twice.
On November 11, Colin Kaepernick replaced Smith at quarterback against the Rams at the 6:24 mark of the second quarter. The duo would discover instant chemistry as Crabtree went on to catch 66 passes for 950 yards and nine touchdowns over San Francisco's final 11 games, including the playoffs. Extrapolated over a full 16-game season, those numbers would project to a statistical line of 96/1,382/14. That's 222.2 fantasy points. Detroit's Calvin Johnson scored the most fantasy receiver points in the league last season, and he finished with 226.4. Per ESPN Stats & Information, Kaepernick completed 68.5 percent of his 2012 pass targets to Crabtree. Kap completed just 58.4 percent of his throws intended for other receivers.
Because we tend to decide whether or not receivers are truly "No. 1" caliber based on statistics, we could probably all agree that Crabtree elevated himself during this time period, capitalizing on a diversified offense with a stronger-armed quarterback under center. A passer more willing to and capable of pulling the trigger on intermediate and deep throws. Kaepernick's accuracy and the duo's impressive timing also allowed for increased run-after-catch opportunities, where Crabtree has always been proficient.
In Rotowold's final Player News blurb on Crabtree -- following a five-catch, 109-yard, one-score performance in San Francisco's Super Bowl XLVII loss to Baltimore -- we posited that Crabtree had "developed into arguably the NFL's premier run-after-catch receiver, south of Minnesota." Seemingly playing with more confidence simply because he was getting the football more consistently, Crabtree displayed impressive balance and physical running after the reception. He was a better player. And we expected him to have an even better 2013 season.
During Tuesday's OTA practice, Crabtree suffered a torn Achilles' tendon and on Wednesday will undergo "what could be season-ending surgery," USA Today reported. While the Niners aren't giving up hope of Crabtree contributing late this year, they certainly can't count on Crabtree to contribute. Anything he gives them will be considered a bonus. And a mammoth void has been created in San Francisco's pass-catching corps.
Here is an anticipated fallout for each affected entity:
The 49ers: The loss of San Francisco's No. 1 receiver shifts the balance of power in the NFC West to the Seahawks, who've arguably already stockpiled more talent than the reigning division champs after acquiring Percy Harvin from the Vikings. While the 49ers are built for the long haul with a surplus of young talent and draft picks, they are simultaneously in win-now mode. This is a team that plans to return to the Super Bowl. Don't expect GM Trent Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh to leave a single stone unturned as they attempt to compensate for Crabtree's loss.
Crabtree: Optimists will point to Terrell Suggs and Da'Quan Bowers' relatively quick 2012 recoveries from Achilles' tears as possible indications Crabtree will play football in 2013. Keep in mind Suggs' Achilles' was only partially torn and occurred on April 28, giving Suggs about a three-week head start to recover from an ostensibly less severe injury. (We've not yet heard the full extent of Crabtree's tear.) Suggs returned on October 21. He was also largely ineffective for over two months (two sacks in eight regular season games), before finding something of a groove in January's playoffs.
Bowers tore his Achilles' on May 10, giving him a nearly two-week head start on Crabtree. Bowers returned on October 25 and managed three sacks in ten games. The start-stop nature of wide receiver route running also figures to make this a trickier recovery for Crabtree than up-field pass rushers Bowers and Suggs. Crabtree must explode off the line and change directions regularly.
Crabtree is headed for the PUP list to open the season, which would cost him the first six games at the very least. He'll be no more than a late-round flier in fantasy drafts, and will probably hit waiver wires early in the season when fantasy owners are forced to make roster additions due to injuries or bye weeks.
Colin Kaepernick: I think the 49ers are going to make a move, whether it's signing a receiver like Nate Washington after he's released by the Titans, or trading a late-round pick for someone like Malcom Floyd. If Baalke really wants to get aggressive, he could pursue a player like Kenny Britt, dangling the 2014 third-rounder acquired in San Francisco's second-round trade down with Tennessee. Here is a comprehensive list of available NFL Free Agents. (Hint: It isn't pretty.) I wouldn't expect Baalke and Harbaugh to rest on their laurels because they are trying to get back to the Super Bowl. Kaepernick's 2013 outlook is adversely affected for now, but the 49ers will try to help him. He should still be viewed in fantasy drafts as a low-end QB1 with upside.
Anquan Boldin: Nationally, fingers immediately pointed to Boldin assuming No. 1 receiver duties in San Francisco. That's a long shot. While Boldin deserves major kudos for an outstanding playoff performance, he's experienced a three-year decline in playmaking ability and does not run well or separate from coverage entering his age-33 season. I don't think Baalke and Harbaugh will ask Boldin to do things he's not capable of doing, like carrying a team's receiving load for a 16-game schedule. He is strictly a complementary puzzle piece. Crabtree's loss could contribute to a few more targets, but ultimately Boldin's outlook is not greatly affected. He is a role player.
A.J. Jenkins: A window of opportunity has opened wider for the disappointing 2012 first-round pick, who failed to record a single reception across 19 possible games as a rookie. Jenkins was only active for five contests, failing to beat out dead-legged Randy Moss, and special teamers Ted Ginn and Kyle Williams for playing time. Jenkins has tools, and was always going to get a long look in training camp, but for now expectations should be very guarded. While the 49ers will definitely keep an open mind, Jenkins isn't a guy they can count on for significant 2013 impact.
Quinton Patton: The fourth-round rookie was a favorite among draftniks for his smooth routes and play style. Patton isn't a great athlete, running a 4.53 forty at the Combine with a 33-inch vertical. He's another player with more opportunity who will be worth monitoring closely in camp and preseason games. It's worth noting that after rookie camp, reliable Niners beat reporter Matt Maiocco wrote, "I can tell you that Quinton Patton is nowhere close to being ready."
Vernon Davis: Whereas Crabtree instantly hit it off with Kaepernick following his promotion over Smith, Davis' chemistry with the new quarterback took longer to develop. The duo did experience some playoff fireworks as Davis surged to 12 catches, 254 yards, and a touchdown across three postseason contests. Particularly after investing a second-round pick into No. 2 tight end Vance McDonald, it's quite conceivable that play designer Harbaugh will make a larger commitment to Davis' involvement in his passing game following the Crabtree injury.
Mario Manningham: Manningham tore his left ACL and PCL in Week 16 last year and had to accept a $2.15 million pay cut just to stay in San Francisco. He's not expected back for training camp, and at this point is lucky to still have a 90-man offseason roster spot.
The 49ers' Run Game: This was always going to be the foundation of San Francisco's offense. Even with the excitement of Kaepernick entering his first season as a full-time player, the 49ers had every intention of keeping a balanced to run-heavy offense intact. Frank Gore is secure as the feature back. Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James are competing for second string. They may miss Crabtree's effective blocking on downfield run plays, but will continue to benefit from the NFL's premier run-blocking offensive line and certainly won't hurt for touches.