As most know, the process of evaluating football players is exhaustive, entailing an unhealthy overabundance of hours solely dedicated to one athlete who may or may not cut it in the pros for long.
In those hours, an evaluator typically jots down one-word descriptions in his or her notebook that may consist of descriptions such as “aggressive”, “quick like a cat”, “great feet” and “long”. They are ambiguous to a first-time reader, but they’re significant tips to personnel men attempting to predict the future.
Those assigned to the south-central region in the 49ers’ scouting department probably had a few of those notes when they studied Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree prior to making him the 10th overall pick of the 2009 draft. While studying his college game film, it’s likely that their eyebrows raised high, and consequently, their forehead furrowed when they saw the feet on the young Red Raider.
Crabtree’s feet are, dare I say, unlike any others in the league. They are sharp, cutting blades of grass like weed-whackers when he makes a sudden movement, frequently leaving defenders trailing with ease. They’re one of the biggest reasons — along with the best hands Jim Harbaugh has ever seen — why he finally broke out this season as a reliable and dynamic pass-catcher.
Prior to this year, some debated whether or not he was a better receiver than Darrius Heyward-Bey of the Oakland Raiders, who went three selections ahead of him on draft day, and generated a reaction that painted anger across Crabtree’s face before bursting out a quick but visibly painful laugh. It was a point worth examining, however, because Heyward-Bey was more productive than Crabtree in 2011 by more than 100 yards. But not this year.
Crabtree nearly doubled the production of Heyward-Bey, and seems to have finally realized his potential. His route running has improved, which has made his quickness even more dangerous, consequently making him a dynamic threat after the catch (he was seventh in the NFL in YAC with 465 yards). This is the issue that the Falcons cornerbacks — namely Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel — are going to have to deal with on Sunday, and it won’t be easy because they’re not the finest form tacklers in professional football. They struggle to break down in space and don’t take the best of angles, and even if they do, they’re still going to be in trouble because of Crabtree’s foot quickness.
In Week 17, Cardinals starting safety Kerry Rhodes found that out on after a catch and run by the 49ers wide receiver.
On 3rd-and-10 in the third quarter, Crabtree was lined in the slot on the right as part of an Empty set. He was joined by tight end Delanie Walker, who was split wide, and the two would be going up against a three man combination coverage by the Cardinals. The route designed for Crabtree was called “pivot,” a simple route that had him read the leverage of the near defender. If middle linebacker Daryl Washington was outside of him and toward the sideline, Crabtree would run inside and vice versa.
With the ball snapped, Crabtree ran a five-yard vertical stem, buzzed his feet, and turned his body in the direction of Washington. Washington stood still for a brief moment, watching Crabtree’s next move — an elegant spin away from him.
Next he ran outside and parallel to the line of scrimmage and caught the pass from Colin Kaepernick. Instead of continuing laterally like most receivers running outside breaking routes, he stopped his feet, shifted all of his weight and the football outside, and took aim for the inside of the field. Washington ran by him, thinking that Crabtree would go out of bounds after the catch, and he took himself right out of the play. With more than 10 yards in front of him, Crabtree looped around and prepared to juke past incoming defenders.
He accelerated forward nearly in a straight line and was surrounded by three defenders, one of which was Rhodes, who stood directly in front of him. With the ball gripped in his right hand, Crabtree immediately started to shake his hips and chop his feet in an attempt to break down Rhodes. However, Rhodes wasn’t falling for it; he bent his knees, sunk his hips and extended his arms in preparation for the tackle.
Next, Crabtree stuck his left foot into the ground…
…and quickly outran the angle that Rhodes had on him.
What was supposed to be a three-yard reception turned into a 28-yard gain once Crabtree put his quick feet (and vision) to work. Even though he doesn’t possess great long speed, he has exceptionally quick feet, which leads to rapid movements that are difficult to keep up with for defenders. It’s this same quickness that enables him to run various routes very well (when he’s disciplined and running with proper technique), such as the sluggo — slant-and-go — he ran against the New England Patriots in Week 16.
On Sunday, he’ll likely be facing both Robinson and Samuel throughout the game, and he matches up very well with both. Although both possess the ability to track the football well, their aggressiveness also is a detriment at times, as they are more likely to miss open-field tackles. If they’re undisciplined against Crabtree this weekend, they’ll only be tracking the numbers on the back of his jersey as he runs into the end zone.