It was a surprise to almost all when Michael Crabtree was not the first receiver taken in the 2009 NFL Draft. The Oakland Raiders bestowed that honor upon speedster Darrius Heyward-Bey, selecting him as the seventh player in the draft. The San Francisco 49ers seemed to have a draft-day steal fall into their lap, getting the bonafide top receiving prospect in the class with the 10th selection.
What followed in 2009 was somewhat of a nightmare scenario for the 49ers. Crabtree held out for longer than any player in franchise history, and it appeared he was ready to sit out the full season and enter the draft once again in 2010. Ultimately, the sides agreed to a six-year contract on October 7th with the NFL season already well underway.
The holdout marred his rookie-season performance, as he missed valuable time training with the team, and his following 2010 and 2011 seasons were nothing spectacular. He was a talented receiver stuck with a mediocre quarterback in Alex Smith in an offensive system that didn’t particularly suit either of them.
In 2012, however, things changed for Crabtree. He finished as the 14th overall receiver in fantasy that season, his first top-30 finish, and he had a big second half with Colin Kaepernick taking over quarterbacking duties. He seemed prime for a big 2013 campaign, but a torn right achilles tendon prevented him from playing until December 1st.
Clearly, his career thus far has been quite a roller coaster ride. Now fully healthy and entering his first season in which Kaepernick is the unquestioned starter in San Francisco, where does Crabtree stand in 2014?
Crabtree’s Advanced Metrics
A great place to start in evaluating Crabtree would be looking at his advanced metrics. Namely, we can get a sense of just how good he is by looking at numberFire’s signature Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. For those newer to numberFire, NEP is a measure of how many expected points a player is adding to his team through his on-field play (see more on NEP in our glossary).
Here’s how Crabtree ranked in Reception NEP, Reception NEP per target, and Target NEP in 2011 and 2012. Keep in mind that 2013 is omitted because he missed a giant part of the season:
|Reception NEP||Reception NEP per Target||Target NEP
Note: The per target number above is amongst receivers with 100-plus targets
Notice that he made a massive leap in each of these categories from one season to the next. This is no coincidence, as 2012 was the first year Jim Harbaugh coached the 49ers, and is also the first season Crabtree got extensive work with Kaepernick.
His finishes in the various NEP-based categories in 2012 are absolutely impressive. His 103.89 Reception NEP put him 15th in the league, but the efficiency through which he amassed this number is arguably an even greater feat.
His Reception NEP per target in 2012 was 0.82, efficiency that was greater than that of household names like Julio Jones, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall, and A.J. Green. And it’s not like he managed this efficiency on limited looks, as his 127 targets were 20th most in the league that season.
His efficiency was also boosted by his strong catch rate. Of receivers who saw at least 100 targets in 2012, only four had a higher catch rate than Crabtree’s 66.93%. That’s not a number that is unreasonable for him to maintain either, as in 2011, even before Harbaugh and Kaepernick came to town, he posted a 63.15% rate.
Essentially, Crabtree put up a borderline elite Reception NEP figure with tremendous efficiency. It’s important to remember that Kaepernick threw only half the passes for the 49ers in 2012, but it’s a relationship that showed a ton of promise.
Kaepernick and Crabtree
While Kaepernick is known more for his legs than his arm, he manages some strong marks in numberFire’s Passing NEP metric. His Passing NEP of 62.06 was 10th in the league last season, higher than that of Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, and Andrew Luck. He was efficient too, as he was fifth among quarterbacks with 400-plus drop backs last season (essentially all full-time starters) in Passing NEP per pass.
In 2012, Kaepernick started Week 11 through Week 17. In those games, Crabtree averaged 5.86 catches for 85 yards, and scored five touchdowns. That equates to just about 12.5 standard points per game, or roughly how many points per game Dez Bryant scored last season. Also consider that this was when Kaepernick was getting his first real action as a starter, and he’s had time to improve as a quarterback since then.
Crabtree saw a ton of targets with Kaepernick under center in 2012, the most of any of his 49ers teammates. In Kaepernick’s seven starts, Crabtree averaged 9.28 targets and had double-digit targets in four of the last five games of the season. Even last season when he was fresh off of a long-term injury, Crabtree still saw 6.6 targets per game from Kaepernick.
While the 49ers had the fewest pass attempts in the league last season, Kaepernick has shown efficiency as a thrower as well as a willingness to consistently feed the ball to Crabtree. That, my friends, is the makings of a good fantasy relationship.
Our numbers really like Michael Crabtree in 2014. We have him pegged for 89.07 catches, 1,294.72 yards, and 7.29 touchdowns. His FireFactor score, which is a ranking system that grades players on a value-over-replacement-player algorithm, is higher than that of Vincent Jackson, Wes Welker, Larry Fitzgerald, Victor Cruz, Pierre Garcon, and Keenan Allen, all of whom are being drafted before Crabtree per FantasyPros.com ADP list.
Crabtree is the 45th player overall on our board for a standard, non-PPR 12-team league. This is valuable information given that Crabtree can be had later than that in many drafts. Look at his ADP on various websites:
He seems to be a pretty strong value in ESPN leagues, and you won’t have to reach for him on the other two sites. Crabtree makes for a strong and relatively safe option in 2014. Per our Confidence Interval, which is essentially a floor to ceiling projection each player is given by numberFire, only 12 wideouts have a higher floor than Crabtree and only nine have more upside. That's the kind of low risk-high reward combination you look for in early-mid round picks.
If you’re in the market for a low-end wide receiver one or high-end wide receiver two on draft day, confidently select Michael Crabtree.