Signing Michael Crabtree: Is He Actually a Sorry Receiver?

Michael Crabtree will more than likely have a new team next year, but should that new team have high expectations?

At one point in time, nothing was stopping Michael Crabtree. That was over the final nine games of the 2012 season, where Crabtree scored eight times, averaged nearly six receptions per contest and seemed to have developed a strong rapport with newly-anointed quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Since then, Crabtree's torn his Achilles and scored five touchdowns in 21 games played. Is there any reason to really believe he can be a team's top receiver again?

What Breakout Season?

It took four NFL seasons for Michael Crabtree to officially break out. Some of that was understandable -- it can take a little time for a wide receiver to get used to NFL play and, well, he was catching passes from pre-Kansas City Alex Smith. But from 2009 through 2011, Crabtree's best season saw 72 catches for 841 yards and 4 touchdowns.

At this time, in terms of Net Expected Points (NEP), our in-house metric that looks at the number of points a player adds for his team above or below expectation, Crabtree's numbers were understandably not all that strong.

YearGamesReceptionsRec NEPRankRec NEP/TargetRank

The table above shows Crabtree's numbers within our Reception NEP and Reception NEP per target metrics. Reception NEP looks to see how many expected points a player adds on receptions only -- it's a cumulative statistic, meaning volume can help a player tremendously. When you divide that by the number of targets a player sees (Reception NEP per target), however, you start to see efficiency. And Michael Crabtree, from 2009 to 2011, wasn't very efficient.

Among wide receivers with 50 or more targets, Crabtree never ranked in the top third in Reception NEP, despite seeing 86, 101 and 115 targets in each of his first three seasons in the league, respectively. Against higher-volume wideouts, Crabtree's per-target efficiency during this time was far below average, never reaching the 50th percentile.

The 2012 season changed all of that.

YearGamesReceptionsRec NEPRankRec NEP/TargetRank

Compared to his first three years, 2012 saw Crabtree rank 15th among the 84 50-plus target wideouts in Reception NEP, and that wasn't due to seeing high volume -- he still finished 17th when you break things down on a per-target basis.

Naturally, everyone was high on Crabtree entering 2013, his fifth year in the league. But an Achilles tear forced him to play only five regular season games. In those five games, however, Crabtree did more or less keep his pace from the previous season, seeing a Reception NEP per target of 0.77. That was 0.05 expected points per look lower than his 2012 rate, but far better than what he saw during the Alex Smith years.

The hope was that Crabtree would bounce back in 2014, this past season, but he didn't. In fact, 2014 was the worst season Crabtree saw as a pro since his rookie season in terms of efficiency.

YearGamesReceptionsRec NEPRankRec NEP/TargetRank

Perhaps the worst part about his 2014 campaign was that his per target effectiveness was far worse than teammates Anquan Boldin and Steve Johnson, who finished with Reception NEP per targets of 0.73 and 0.81, respectively. In other words, with the same quarterback in the same system, two veteran receivers were much better each time they were targeted than Crabtree was a year ago.

This, too, brings up an interesting point: Since Anquan Boldin has been in San Francisco, he's had a Reception NEP per target average of 0.83, which is better than Crabtree's breakout campaign. As I noted last year, Boldin has been insanely underrated, but considering his average is better than Crabtree's peak is pretty telling. Perhaps Michael Crabtree just isn't all that great.

What's Next?

With Torrey Smith reportedly going to San Francisco, the 49ers don't need to re-up Crabtree's contract -- he more than likely won't be in San Francisco next year.

That leaves a lot of possibilities, as plenty of teams are in need of a wide receiver. And considering his age, as we documented yesterday, he might be still be in his prime years.

But in this case, does age really matter? We have a pretty large snapshot of Crabtree's career, and we know three things -- we know he's had one strong campaign, and we're aware that his 2013 injury could have caused his inefficiency in 2014. But we also know that other players within his same offensive system, at the same time he was playing, have been more effective. That's a red flag.

Crabtree isn't a "sorry receiver" (trademarked by Richard Sherman) per se, and I'm certain Crabtree can find a starting spot on an NFL team once free agency starts. But if it's on a team where he's asked to be the top target, we should all have obvious hesitations.