Fantasy Football: Michael Crabtree Can Thrive With the Ravens
On the heels of signing a three-year, $21 million contract with the Baltimore Ravens, Michael Crabtree appears firmly entrenched as the franchise's top receiver. The 10th-year pro is coming off three successful seasons as a member of the Oakland Raiders, and he has quietly been one of the more productive wideouts in the game in recent campaigns.
The Ravens are paying him $15 million over the first two years of his contract, and the deal contains $11 million in guarantees. It's a pretty nice haul for a 30-year-old player who had just been released by his previous franchise, but with his strong run of production, such a payday was warranted.
While the move hasn't received as much hype as the NFL's off-season game of "quarterback carousel" or some of the other big-name free agent acquisitions, the Crabtree signing is certainly impactful for fantasy purposes, and there are many reasons as to why.
An Abundance of Opportunity
For starters, the Ravens have completely overhauled their pass-catching corps this off-season, and that's putting it mildly. Key passing-game contributors such as Jeremy Maclin, Mike Wallace, Benjamin Watson, Danny Woodhead, and Michael Campanaro (not expected back) have all moved on during the last month. Those five wideouts were responsible for an insane 309 targets a season ago, leaving quarterback Joe Flacco essentially bereft of any reliable contributors.
The Ravens haven't exactly gone all-out to restock the deck. To this point, the only other notable player the team has acquired is former Arizona Cardinals' speedster John Brown; a player who is long on potential but has struggled mightily to remain on the field over the last two seasons. The Ravens appeared to reach a big money contract with free agent receiver Ryan Grant, but the deal fell through because of a failed physical (according to the team, anyway).
It was at this point, they moved to pounce on the newly-released Crabtree.
Done deal. 🖊 pic.twitter.com/GQ5NAsFXWg
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) March 16, 2018
The franchise is hoping for more from former 2015 first-rounder Breshad Perriman, but with a laundry list of injuries and only 43 catches to his name over three NFL seasons, any valuable contribution should be looked at more as a bonus than an expectation. Meanwhile, Chris Moore flashed some upside a year ago, but he isn't likely to enjoy a big role going forward. The team will likely add to the depth chart in the 2018 NFL Draft, but it's hard to find rookie receivers who can step in and produce from day one.
All of this underscores how important the acquisition of Crabtree is to this offense. An established player who has only missed a total of two games over the last four seasons, he will prove to be a consistently reliable contributor in a receiver group full of question marks.
In fact, a strong argument can be made that Crabtree is exactly the sort of target that Flacco has desperately needed for years. Wallace, Perriman, and to a lesser extent, Maclin are all speedsters capable of taking the top off a defense. This is also true of the newly-inked Brown. But that's not how Crabtree makes his money.
Instead, the former Texas Tech standout has been successful with excellent technique, route-running, and tenacity. Crabtree functions best as a possession receiver with strong hands (although drops have been a problem in recent seasons), and he may prove to be the Ravens' best short-to-intermediate target since Anquan Boldin was traded in 2013.
A Fit in This Offense?
The considerable opportunity share is clearly appealing, but what about Crabtree's fit with the offense? While the Raiders' passing game was decidedly middling in 2017, the Ravens' air attack was an unequivocal disaster for much of the season. The team averaged only 189.4 passing yards per contest (fourth-fewest), and Flacco's 5.72 yards per attempt ranked last among all qualified passers.
Does this mean that Crabtree is bound to flounder?
For starters, it's not often discussed, but Flacco's game really picked up over the final five weeks of the campaign, as he threw nine touchdowns and two interceptions while averaging 253.2 passing yards per game over that span. Those are very strong totals and a positive takeaway from an otherwise disappointing season.
It also needs to be pointed out that Crabtree is a volume player, rather than a master of efficiency. Even if Flacco struggles again in 2018, Crabtree can still be effective. Essentially, he's the wide receiver equivalency of a grinding running back; the sort of player who is productive because his team constantly feeds him the ball while he muscles his way down the field. This sounds like an insult but it's not. It's simply Crabtree's game, and his career average of 11.9 yards per reception makes that clear.
Take a look at his performance in through the eyes of our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric if you want further proof. NEP employs historical down-and-distance data to determine what is expected of a player on a per-play basis. Positive NEP is earned when a player performs above expectation, and negative NEP is indicative of sub-standard performance. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.
Crabtree averaged just 0.55 Reception NEP per Target in 2017, which ranked a mere 62nd among receivers who saw 50 or more looks. It's clearly not always pretty, but he finds a way to get his numbers.
Production and Outlook
Crabtree's performance is often swept under the rug because of it's workmanlike nature, but it simply can't be ignored. The veteran has received over 100 targets in every season in which he's suited up for at least 14 contests, and he has recorded 85-plus receptions in his last three 16-game seasons. That's premium production, and it isn't likely to change with his new franchise, especially with the Ravens hurting for wideouts.
Perhaps even more importantly, he's proven to have a nose for the endzone.
Only 2 NFL players have 8-or-more receiving touchdowns in each of the last 3 seasons:
Michael Crabtree (released by Raiders)
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) March 15, 2018
Any time you find yourself as the only other player in a statistical category alongside the great Antonio Brown, you know you're doing something right.
Frankly, this sort of touchdown production is exactly what the Ravens need. Not a single Ravens pass-catcher found the end zone more than four times in 2017 in a year in which Flacco tossed just 18 scores for a touchdown rate of 3.3%. Those numbers should see some positive regression with Crabtree in the mix.
Crabtree has long been one of the more underrated and under-appreciated wideouts in fantasy football, frequently passed up in favor of younger, flashier options with higher ceilings but considerably lower floors. It's usually proven to be a poor decision to ignore him. The days of jockeying with Amari Cooper for position as the Raiders' top wideout are over. At this moment, he's the only game in town for his new franchise, and he should be peppered with all the targets he can handle.
Make no mistake about it, you're drafting Crabtree for his floor. Yes, he's moving to an inferior offense, but the expected spike in volume should offset this. A veritable lock for a high-volume role as the Ravens' top target, Crabtree currently has a standard-format average draft position (ADP) of 5.09, per Fantasy Football Calculator, which is WR26 cost. At a high-end WR3 price, he's not an out-and-out steal, but there is still plenty of value to be had with Crabtree locked into a high-volume role.