Can We Trust Michael Crabtree in the Fantasy Football Playoffs?

Michael Crabtree is having a renaissance season. Can he continue to produce deep into December?

We’ve all been there before: You hate your job. You hate your boss. You don’t jive with your coworkers. You know you are highly skilled and highly motivated, but you’re miserable. If only that firm across town had an opening…

I know the feeling. You probably do too. So does Michael Crabtree.

In August, Michael Crabtree said he was "blessed" to be leaving San Francisco for Oakland. After six seasons donning the red and gold, he had found his opening across town. And he’s making the most of his newfound opportunity.

As the fantasy season barrels toward the finish line, owners are eager to optimize roster space to maximize value and exploit late season matchups.

Should Michael Crabtree be part of your playoff plans?

A Change of Scenery

Sometimes, a different view is all you need.

After a dismal 2014 campaign, Crabtree packed his bags and moved north to Oakland. He even left money on the table to get out of San Francisco.

Refreshed and rejuvenated, the results have been stellar. His current slash line of 51 catches, 646 yards, and 5 touchdowns has him on pace to meet or beat his career highs, all set in 2012.

His Net Expected Points (NEP) rankings -- our key metric used to measure a player’s output versus expectation -- among wide receivers with at least 75 targets, are even more impressive. Take a look:

Metric Value Rank
Reception NEP  61.42    12
Target NEP  31.59    10
Reception Success Rate 88.20%     8

Like his traditional stats, Crabtree is on pace to meet or beat all of his previous seasons’ NEP values. We call that a career year in the making.

Has a 32-mile move really made that big of a difference?

Baby, You Can Drive My Carr

Maybe, but his supporting cast in Oakland has certainly helped.

After signing Crabtree to a one-year, $3-million deal (with an extra $2 million available in incentives), the Raiders went out and drafted mega-stud Amari Cooper. Cooper and Crabtree have hit it off, developing a classic mentor/protégé relationship which has seen both receivers thrive.

In fact, Oakland is the only team in the NFL with two wide receivers who have at least 50 catches.

It helps that the offensive line is overachieving beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, ranking as the top pass protection unit and as a top-10 run blocking unit through Week 10, according to Football outsiders. Let me restate that for those who are understandably in disbelief: the Raiders' offensive line is really, really good.

Despite the impressive offensive line play, the Raiders' running game has been hit or miss. While Latavius Murray has shown flashes of greatness, his play has been an up and down proposition. He ranks an unimpressive 17th in Rushing NEP among 28 running backs with at least 100 carries.

Defensively, the Raiders have been terrible, ranking 31st overall, 25th versus the run, and 31st versus the pass, according to our metrics. This creates opportunity for Oakland’s passing attack and has culminated in Oakland being the sixth most efficient offense, according to schedule-adjusted NEP.

But the biggest reason for Crabtree’s new found success? Sophomore quarterback Derek Carr.

Carr is on fire this year, completing over 64 percent of his passes, with a touchdown to interception ratio of 21 to 6. He ranks eighth in Passing NEP among quarterbacks with at least 250 drop backs. His Passing NEP pace of 132.57 is more than double that of any quarterback to ever throw a pass to Michael Crabtree (Colin Kaepernick notched a 62.06 mark in 2013).

Is there a better formula to garner wide receiver success? Excellent quarterback play, superb offensive line play, a talented teammate to draw coverage, a wishy washy running game, and a pathetic defense have all combined to make Michael Crabtree a relevant player again, both in real and pretend football.

Can we expect the same rate of success into the fantasy playoffs?

The Home Stretch

As a player who went mostly undrafted this fall, Michael Crabtree ranks 15th among wide receivers in standard scoring formats. Owners are undoubtedly thrilled with their premier free agent acquisition.

So we’ll just plug him in as a WR2 and sit back and watch the championships roll in, right? Right?

Not so fast. There are some alarming trends at play which make the Texas Tech product a bit more volatile than people realize.

While Crabtree is averaging a healthy 9.44 targets per game, he’s been the recipient of only three red zone targets in the last six weeks.

He’s tied for ninth in the league with 12 catches over 20 yards. Impressive on the surface, but his long catch on the year is only 38 yards, and he ranks only 52nd in yards after the catch. This is a player who is routinely targeted on lower percentage throws, doesn’t make big plays, and doesn’t make tacklers miss. This is not exactly the type of player on whom I’d want to rely with everything on the line.

Further, his fantasy playoff schedule is a mixed bag. In Week 14, the Raiders travel to Denver to face the league’s premier defense, according to our metrics. When these teams met in Week 4, Crabtree was blanketed by shutdown cornerback Aqib Talib, and was held to only 54 yards on 4 catches.

After that, the Raiders have back to back home games, hosting the Packers in Week 15 and the Chargers in Week 16. The Packers rank 19th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP, and the Chargers are worse, ranking 23rd. When the Raiders and Chargers played in Week 5, Crabtree notched a 6 grabs for 63 yards and a score.

Finally, there's reason to be concerned with the Raiders' ability to remain competitive. At 4-5, we currently give Oakland only a nine percent chance to make the playoffs. While that number could fluctuate in coming weeks, there is a chance that Oakland has nothing to play for in December. That’s a fantasy owner’s worst nightmare.

All of these factors combined have Crabtree projected to play as the 26th best receiver for the rest of the season. That’s not exactly a “set it and forget it” play in fantasy football.

That being said, if owners can stay alive into Week 15, Crabtree may be a viable WR3 or Flex play based on matchups alone.