Perception vs. Reality is a semi-regular premium-exclusive series that will focus in on a few players that for one reason or another (at least in the eyes of this writer), seem to have a slightly distorted value or a very wide range for their value in the dynasty community as a whole. The goal of this series will be to ignore the common perceptions that might be either too generous or much too harsh based on the name value of the player, the media coverage, or any other number of reasons.
This is not intended to be a buy or sell series, since some of these players will have owners that are extremely high on them, making them impossible to buy at decent value, while others will have owners that are extremely low on them. Instead, this is a series that will hopefully make you channel your inner Dennis Green and make sure that players “are who we thought they were.”
Michael Crabtree. Just the name makes some of you cringe and want to throw things. If that’s the case, it’s probably because you were one of the owners that spent a very high first round rookie pick on him back in the 2009 rookie draft, expecting him to be a stud receiver in the NFL, then bailed on him a year or two later when he was looking like he was a bust. We should start our discussion of Crabtree a few years earlier though to remind ourselves why the hopes were so high for him.
Crabtree played his first game of college ball in the fall of 2007 and came sprinting out of the gates with 12 receptions, 106 yards, and three touchdowns in his very first game as a redshirt freshman. He never looked back and ended his freshman season with an astonishing 134 receptions for 1,962 yards and 22 touchdowns, setting multiple team, conference, and NCAA (freshman) records. He was also the first freshman to ever win the Biletnikoff Award (best college WR).
In 2008, as a Sophomore, Crabtree saw a slight drop in usage as defenses truly began to key in on him. This made his numbers scale back from record breaking to just nation leading as he posted year end totals of 97 receptions, 1,165 yards, and 19 touchdowns. He was a Heisman finalist, the first ever player to win the Biletnikoff Award twice in a row (Justin Blackmon has done it since), and had just finished what was possibly the greatest two year stretch for a Division 1 WR in recent history.
With that kind of college pedigree, it is very easy to see why people were drooling as he entered the 2009 draft – that’s where things started to get a little shaky, though. While training for the combine, Crabtree broke his foot. This prevented him from doing any workouts at pro days or at the combine. He turned from a top five lock, according to many draft pundits, into the tenth overall pick for the 49ers. The fall from grace didn’t stop there as Crabtree’s contract holdout lasted into the middle of October, earning him the “diva” title by several.
Needless to say, without any OTAs, mini-camps, or training camp, Crabtree struggled as a rookie. Even with the struggles, he did manage to post a line of 48 receptions, 625 yards, and two touchdowns over the 11 games he was active. His second season (the 2010 season), he missed the off-season program and training camp once again due to nagging injuries, causing some to question his desire and heart. This led to little improvement in his production with 55 receptions, 741 yards, and six touchdowns on the season.
Like the rest of the league, he missed the 2011 pre-season due to the NFL lockout, but also had another foot injury that he was dealing with at the time. He struggled at the start of the season, and while he posted career highs with 72 receptions and 874 yards on the season, it still wasn’t very good given the expectations.
The light at the end of the tunnel is that over his last 7 games of 2011, he posted 41 catches for 539 yards and three touchdowns. If you extend that to a full season we get 94 catches for 1,232 yards and seven touchdowns. This was a bit of a hint that the young WR, that was about to turn 25 just after the 2012 season begins, might have finally figured it out.
Despite what Allen Iverson tells you about practice, it is important, especially for young players. In 2012, Crabtree participated in his first off-season program of his career. This seemed to allow Crabtree to continue at his pace from the last seven games of the 2011 season and post a very solid 85 catches for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns, placing him firmly in the top 20 if not top 15 WRs in most leagues.
Now that we are up to the current point in time, let’s take a look at the few of the common perceptions leveled against Mr. Crabtree and separate the wheat from the chaff.
1) “He is just another diva receiver.”
This perception has come about largely because of the holdout, but also because he has missed a lot of off-season events due to injury. I’m going to chalk this up to just a simple case of immaturity. It is hardly a new story in the NFL. College stud comes into the league and struggles to adapt to suddenly having lots of money and fame. He was only 21 years old when he was drafted. Combine that with his pride being a little hurt by “falling” to the tenth overall pick and you get a young man who doesn’t know how to deal with it. His current teammates and coaches have nothing but praise for the young WR, his work ethic and his attitude.
2) “He is a receiver on a run first team.”
First off, the 49ers weren’t exactly a run first team this year. In fact, they only ran the ball on about 42% of their offensive snaps. Now, just for arguments sake, let’s say that is a fluke and they get closer to the 50/50 split they had in 2011. There are a lot of “run first” teams that support one very solid fantasy wide receiver. Just ask the owners of Andre Johnson, Percy Harvin, and Dwayne Bowe. If there is a talented receiver out there, even the quarterbacks of run first teams will find them.
3) “It took him too long to break out, so he’ll never be much in the NFL.”
This isn’t exactly the way that the NFL works. Players aren’t dairy products with an expiration date. Just because he didn’t produce WR2 numbers until his fourth season (even though his last seven games of his third were definitely there), that doesn’t mean he’s labeled as a bust. I’ll chalk this one up to lack of practice time. He wasn’t able to participate in any significant off-season program until his fourth season.
4) “He is a top ten dynasty wide receiver.”
Tap the brakes here a little bit. Yes, he had a very good season, and yes, he surprised a lot of fantasy football owners with it. However, I highly doubt that he will make his way into the top ten range anytime soon. There are a few things working against him in this area. The first is the fact that he lacks the size/speed combination needed to be elite. He isn’t on the same level as Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, or Larry Fitzgerald. Not only that, but the 49ers aren’t the offensive juggernaut that is required to propel a very good NFL receiver into the level of elite fantasy player. Solid WR2 I would agree with, but he won’t be a fantasy WR1.
5) “He is going to see a massive drop off next year when defenses focus on him. with double coverage and shutdown corners.”
Umm.. what exactly were defenses doing this year? It isn’t like Mario Manningham and the rest of the 49ers wide receivers were striking fear into defenses. Crabtree was already seeing double coverage. He also saw an awful lot of double and triple teams in his record setting college years. He knows how to play against teams that are keying on him, and he’s consistently produced against it. Not only that, but he plays in the NFC West, a division with some of the best young shutdown corners. He posted an average stat line of 5.5 receptions, 85 yards, and 0.8 touchdowns in division games against those shutdown corners.
6) “His production is merely a product of bulk and him being forced the ball.”
This is yet another statement I have heard, but I have a hard time finding any information to backup. Crabtree had 127 targets on the year. That is 22nd for the season and just behind guys like Justin Blackmon, Brandon Lloyd and Brian Hartline. That is hardly forcing him the ball or an excessive number of targets. If anything, that is on the low side for a team’s top wideout and leaves a lot of room to grow!
Crabtree burned a lot of owners when he didn’t show much of anything for about three years, which I don’t need to tell you is a very long time in fantasy football. For that reason, there are a lot of owners who view him as a bust and won’t even consider giving him anything close to true value. On the flip side are the owners who drafted him based on his massive college production and are just now getting a return on their investment. For these owners, he is like a fine wine that has aged and is just now starting to provide a few tasty glimpses of what he can become – that means his value is all over the board. If you can find someone willing to sell him at WR3 level or lower, I suggest you jump all over that. On the flip side, if someone will give you WR1 value for him, I would take that as well.
I don’t think this year was a fluke for him, especially given the chemistry that he often displayed with new quarterback Colin Kaepernick. He will likely be a solid WR2 for years to come and continue to display the talent that made him one of the most productive college receivers in recent history. Just make sure you keep the expectations in check. He doesn’t have the skill set of a true number 1 receiver. Then again, neither do guys like Jeremy Maclin, Antonio Brown or Greg Jennings. However, even if you don’t like him, it is hard to not be convinced that he will be a very solid (though not elite) dynasty asset, especially in PPR leagues.
Find Jacob on Twitter at @feldmanjacob