Michael Crabtree is the ideal wide receiver to have in an offense that uses the run as its foundation while supplementing it with quick-strike passing. That’s because he’s able to make tacklers miss with his short-area quickness, while frequently turning short-to-intermediate routes into long gains.
It’s an ability that opens up running lanes for both Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick, with safeties forced to respect his outside speed, and with a gang tackling mentality immediately in place once he catches the ball. Pleasant green field is also opened up for Vernon Davis, and of course Kaepernick utilizes Crabtree as his primary deep option.
Now, all of that is gone. In May.
Crabtree tore is Achilles during a workout yesterday, according to several sources. The injury will likely end his 2013 season long before it was scheduled to start, although there’s hope he could return late in the season. Terrell Suggs and Da’Quan Bowers did just that after recovering from the same injury last year, but — much like Adrian Peterson with his inhuman ACL recovery — they’re very much the exception, not the norm.
The fantasy implications of Crabtree’s injury are widespread, and both good and bad (mostly bad and horrible). Let’s embrace our hopes and fears, and run down this doom-filled list of the various victims on the 49ers’ roster, and those set to possibly benefit. I know, we’re cold and cruel and terrible.
Colin Kaepernick: There’s no way to sprinkle sugar on this. For Kaep, this is a whole lot of hurt.
Of Crabtree’s 1,105 total receiving yards in 2012, 536 of them came after the catch. That’s a lot of burst, with his yards after catching a ball accounting for 48 percent of Crabtree’s regular-season receiving total. Essentially, any time Crabtree received the ball and was given even a sliver of space, there was a chance he’d stretch that into something much more than just a short gain. That YAC ability in turn inflates Kaepernick’s passing yards and fantasy point totals.
Crabtree was a favorite and frequent target. During the first eight games of the 2012 season with Alex Smith as his quarterback, Crabtree averaged only 55 receiving yards per game. Then with Kaepernick doing the chucking, his weekly totals jumped to 83.1 yards. His weekly targets also jumped, going from 6.9 under Smith, to nine with Kaepernick.
This is also quite petrifying…
Michael Crabtree: targeted on nearly 40% of routes he ran from Weeks 11-17 with Colin Kaepernick as starter, 2nd in NFL in that span.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 22, 2013
That’s how much Kaepernick is missing now. If we include the playoffs, he’s missing the guy he looked to during 90 of his 272 pass attempts in his starts (33 percent). Usually, Mario Manningham would be a fine though not equivalent replacement as he’s asked to do his best Crabtree impression. But he’ll likely miss most of training camp after ACL and PCL surgeries, and it won’t be surprising to see him start the season on the PUP list.
Gulp? Well, sort of. See below.
Anquan Boldin: Boldin could receive most of Crabtree’s targets by default, though A.J. Jenkins and Quinton Patton will makes things a little foggy (keep seeing below). Boldin still has plenty left, which he demonstrated most recently with the 104 yards and a touchdown he posted on his now current team during the Super Bowl. Throughout the playoffs he was stupid good, with 380 total yards over the four games, with four touchdowns.
The problem is that he’s never played Crabtree’s speed game that’s filled with elusiveness and such, and with his 33rd birthday coming up in October, this old Boldin dog definitely isn’t learning any new quick tricks. He’s a sure-handed receiver who runs great routes and is able to find open space. But separating and gaining chunk yardage after the catch isn’t his style (his 2012 YAC finished at 267, which was only 29 percent of his overall yardage).
A.J. Jenkins/Quinton Patton: Suddenly, there could be some value here, and it likely resides with Jenkins. He was a first-round pick (30th overall) a year ago for a reason, and that reason is presumably because he’s good. A look back at his college numbers verifies that assumption, as he had 1,276 receiving yards during his final season at Illinois.
Jenkins was essentially a luxury pick, and he found a warm and fuzzy home on the bench for pretty much the entire 2012 season while being buried behind Crabtree, Ted Ginn, and Randy Moss. Now those three names are gone due to an injury, free agency, and a general lack of caring, leaving Jenkins and Patton in a battle to become the true outside speed option. I’ll lean towards Jenkins for now and give him the early backing as a late-round flier in deep leagues or an early season waiver pickup, partly because Patton may be better utilized as a slot receiver.
With Jenkins, comparisons have been made to Randall Cobb due to his dynamic ability which leads to widespread usage in a variety of formations.
Vernon Davis/Vance McDonald: A few weeks ago I explored the riddle of Vance McDonald, and the possibility that he could be Delanie Walker, just better. The odds of that outcome being reality increased the moment Crabtree ripped a pretty important muscle, especially with how often tight ends are moved around and lined up in the backfield in the 49ers offense.
The riddle that is Vernon Davis in a Kaepernick-led offense is much more difficult to crack, but the subtraction of a primary target — no, the primary target — can only serve to help him and provide some stability, at least in terms of his target volume. Between weeks 12 and 17 this past season — a stretch that includes six of Kaepernick’s seven regular-season starts — Davis was targeted only 12 times. Then suddenly during the playoffs, he was targeted 19 times for 254 yards over three games.
If Jenkins and/or Patton aren’t able to sufficiently replace Crabtree’s vertical ability, the Niners will likely revert to what works best when a completed pass is what they desire: rolling Kaepernick out, and making him look to Davis as his big-bodied, bruising target up the middle.
Update (5:17 p.m. ET): Chris Mortensen is reporting that Crabtree was already carved up and patched up, and now his recovery begins. And how long will that process take? Well, PFT has a pretty optimistic report of six months.
With the fantasy football regular season ending in Week 13 for most leagues, that makes Crabtree little more than a reaching, late-season waiver wire flier. Maybe in the most optimistic scenario in which he returns strong, Crabtree will be a sneaky add for playoff-bound teams.
In reality, he may make a contribution late in the season. But in fantasy, we’ll wait until the fall of 2014 to see him do something meaningful again.