When a second-year quarterback with seven starts under his belt sets an NFL record in a primetime playoff game, every other performance that day seems to pale in comparison. However, when Colin Kaepernick wasn’t eviscerating the Green Bay defense with his legs, he was using his arm to find his favorite target, and one of the underrated breakout performers of the 2012 NFL season, Michael Crabtree.
If you take a look at PFF’s Top 10-graded wide receivers this season, you’ll see a lot of familiar names – Andre Johnson and Calvin Johnson, for instance. But up there at No. 7, right behind Roddy White and ahead of A.J. Green and Brandon Marshall, is Crabtree. In catching nine of 11 targets for 119 yards and two touchdowns against the Packers, the 49ers’ top receiver displayed his reliability, his elusiveness, his versatility, and a special connection with his new quarterback. Crabtree has developed into one of the most complete receivers in the NFL, a thought that hadn’t seemed possible for nearly four years.
Big Investment, Small Returns
Crabtree was widely considered to be the best receiver heading into the 2009 NFL draft. In two years as a starter at Texas Tech, he averaged 125 yards per game and scored 41 touchdowns in 25 contests. A two-time Biletnikoff Award winner, he emphatically stamped his resume with the highlight of the 2008 college football season. Down five with eight seconds left against No. 1-ranked Texas, Crabtree caught a sideline pass from Graham Harrell, slipped out of a tackle, and raced into the end zone for a 28-yard game-winning touchdown.
Perhaps it was all this leverage that led Crabtree to one of the more disastrous entrances into the NFL in recent memory. Rumors of a diva attitude dropped him to the 10th pick in the draft, and a lengthy rookie holdout cost him the first five games of his career. Once he got on the field, he didn’t prove worth the wait. In his first full season in 2010, only five receivers with as many targets had a WR Rating lower than Crabtree’s 75.5.
Jim Harbaugh’s arrival last season was a boon for the entire 49er offense, and Crabtree improved with a 93.3 WR Rating in 2011. However, he still gained only 874 yards, and ended the season on a sour note with just one catch, 3 yards, and a -1.0 grade in an NFC Championship loss to the New York Giants. In a draft class that produced Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin, Hakeem Nicks, Kenny Britt, and Mike Wallace, Crabtree’s return certainly didn’t justify the 49ers’ investment. With 440 yards and 2.0 Yards Per Route Run in his first eight games this season, Crabtree was on pace for another unspectacular season. It wasn’t until Harbaugh decided to start Kaepernick over Alex Smith that the talented receiver finally got the opportunities to show the potential San Francisco had always been waiting for.
In the second quarter of last Saturday’s playoff, facing 3rd-and-goal from the 12-yard line, the 49ers emptied their backfield and spread the Packers’ defense. Crabtree ran underneath slot receivers A.J. Jenkins and Vernon Davis, caught Kaepernick’s pass at the 10-yard line, and raced into the end zone for the score.
When his team has needed it most, few receivers have produced as Crabtree has this season. Only four players saw more than Crabtree’s 49 targets on third and fourth down, and his 32 third-down receptions were bested only by Marshall, Calvin Johnson, and Wes Welker. Twenty-four of those catches converted into first downs or touchdowns for San Francisco, and Crabtree’s five scores on third down were tied for the most in the league.
There are times when a quarterback, either by design, faith, or sheer desperation, needs to rely on his receiver to pick up a first down. This is where Crabtree separated himself from his peers. There were 32 plays this season (second-most in the league) where Crabtree caught a pass short of the first-down marker, yet still managed to get enough yardage to move the chains. Seventeen of those came on third or fourth down, by far the highest number of any player in the NFL. Welker and Ray Rice were behind Crabtree with 12 and 10 such catches, respectively. No other player had more than seven.
Racking Up The YAC
Some of these yards-after-catch conversions, like the touchdown against Green Bay, came from Harbaugh’s brilliant play calls. But others are the fruit of the elusiveness and determination that Crabtree showed way back on that legendary touchdown against Texas. On 2nd-and-5 with 14:26 left in the second quarter against the Packers, Crabtree lined up in the left slot and caught a 4-yard hitch, stiff-arming Morgan Burnett to pick up the first down.
Crabtree has always had that ability to make plays after the catch, forcing 13 missed tackles this season after totaling 14 in last year’s campaign. His 543 yards after catch were the fourth-highest total in the league this season and made up 49.1% of his total receiving yards. Only Welker and T.J. Graham had a higher percentage of their yards come after the catch. It was after a furious comeback by Welker’s New England Patriots in Week 15 that Crabtree caught a 6-yard comeback route, eluded Kyle Arrington’s tackle attempt, and ran the remaining 32 yards for the game-saving score.
Crabtree’s catch against Burnett was the only target he received as a slot receiver against the Packers, an outlier in a season where he’s been one of the best at that position. Crabtree ran 34.2% of his routes from the slot this season, while collecting 25 of his 63 first-down conversions from that position. Among wideouts who took 25% of their team’s slot snaps, Crabtree was targeted on a league-high 33.6% when he lined up inside. His 542 yards from the slot was 10th-most in the league, but most impressive was his 3.71 Yards Per Route Run as a slot receiver. That was the best mark in the NFL, and Calvin Johnson (3.15) was the only other wideout with a YPRR better than 3.00.
Crabtree and Johnson are also tied with a 2.55 overall YPRR, the fifth-best mark among the 82 receivers with at least 50 targets. That’s significantly higher than Crabtree’s 2.07 mark from last season, and that improvement has everything to do with his new quarterback.
The Kaepernick Effect
Midway through the second quarter of a tie game, with the 49ers threatening on the Packers’ 20-yard line, Crabtree was isolated against Sam Shields on the outside. He got inside-leverage on Shields with a post route, and Kaepernick gunned a strike to him at the goal line to give San Francisco a 21-14 lead.
Since he took the reigns as San Francisco’s starting quarterback, Kaepernick has targeted Crabtree with 75 passes, while no other 49er has received more than 33. This has given Crabtree more opportunities to showcase the aforementioned reliability, elusiveness, and versatility that he’d already displayed with Smith. However, with Kaepernick’s downfield passing skills, Crabtree has now added a vertical dimension that has taken his game, literally, over the top.
Kaepernick’s completion rate of 68.3% on passes to Crabtree hasn’t matched Smith’s rate of 77.8%, but he’s more than made up for it with quality over quantity. While Smith’s average target to Crabtree traveled 6.2 yards past the line of scrimmage, Kaepernick’s average completion has reached Crabtree 8.1 yards down field. In the range of 10 to 20 yards past the line of scrimmage, Smith completed six of 10 targets to Crabtree for 113 yards and two interceptions. By comparison, Kaepernick has connected with him on 14 of 23 for 241 yards and two touchdowns. In over eight games, Smith threw just two deep passes to Crabtree, completing one of them for 28 yards. Kaepernick has since completed four of six deep throws to Crabtree for 142 yards.
Kaepernick hasn’t just stretched the field vertically with Crabtree, he’s also done so horizontally. On deep out routes, Smith completed three of five targets to Crabtree for 29 yards and Kaepernick has connected with him on six of eight deep outs for 127 yards. And while Smith threw just one corner route to Crabtree for 28 yards, Kaepernick has completed 3-of-5 for 93 yards. With the 49ers facing 3rd-and-2 with 3:36 left in the third quarter on Saturday, Crabtree ran a deep out against Packers cornerback Tramon Williams. Kaepernick hit him with a sideline throw 16 yards past the line of scrimmage, and the 49er drive continued with a fresh set of downs.
The Complete Receiver
Crabtree had a long road to recover from his rocky entrance into the NFL, but this season he’s proven to be one of the most complete receivers in the league. From his reliability on third down, to his ability to run after the catch, to his versatility as a slot receiver and his new found downfield production, he is finally becoming the receiver the 49ers thought they drafted four years ago. With a win this Sunday, I think San Francisco will agree that it was worth the wait.