Fantasy Football: Why Michael Crabtree Can Be A Top-5 WR In 2014

By Meng Song
Michael Crabtree San Francisco 49ers
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When a player has a down year either due to injury or just poor performance, so many owners only remember the most recent season and not the ones before it. That usually means the underperforming player will be a value pick in the coming season’s draft. I love it, and I love Michael Crabtree’s potential in fantasy football for the 2014 season.

I want to begin by addressing the two arguments I often hear about why Crabtree isn’t worth his ADP this year. First is the San Francisco 49ers’ run-first mentality, and the second is the presence of WRs Anquan Boldin and Stevie Johnson and TE Vernon Davis.

Yes, Jim Harbaugh likes to run the ball. The 49ers passed on only 47.8 percent of plays last year, the second-fewest in the league behind only the Seattle Seahawks. However, it makes perfect sense not to take chances when your defense dominates opponents. In 2013, San Francisco gave up the third-fewest points in the NFL and the fifth-fewest yards per game.

But 2014 is a new year. During free agency, the 49ers lost S Donte Whitner and CB Tarell Brown. More importantly, the 49ers could be without their two star LBs, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith.

Bowman tore his ACL in the postseason and will likely be out until midway through the season. Even when he returns, there are no guarantees that he can immediately return to the high level of play he is used to. On the other hand, Smith pled no-contest to DUI and weapons charges and will be sentenced in late July. Even if he escapes jail time, sources report that a multiple-game suspension from the league is likely.

Without a number of key players from last year’s defensive unit, the 49ers’ once stout defense suddenly seems porous for the 2014 season. I fully expect Harbaugh to unleash Kaepernick, and I see his pass attempts this year significantly increasing from his 416 in 2013.

So what about the second concern? It’s true that there are more mouths to feed now in San Francisco, but I actually see Boldin and Johnson’s arrival as good news for Crabtree. Having additional capable receivers gives Kaepernick more outlets to sustain drives against tough defenses, but Crabtree will still be Kaepernick’s go-to guy. I’m not basing this on a hunch; take a look at the following stats.

In 2012, here are Crabtree’s numbers after Kaepernick’s first start against the Chicago Bears in Week 11 (including postseason). Crabtree averaged 6.1 receptions, 88.0 yards and 0.8 TDs per game. He saw 9.3 targets per game, which accounted for a whopping 34.2 percent of Kaepernick’s pass attempts.

In 2013, here are the numbers beginning with Crabtree’s second game back against the Seahawks in Week 14 (including postseason). Crabtree averaged 4.6 receptions, 59.9 yards and 0.1 TDs per game. While this is a notable decline from 2012, I attribute the decrease mostly to his lack of conditioning following his injury, as well as the lack of playing time after missing most of the season.

However, the most indicative stat is that beginning Week 14, Crabtree received 8.1 targets per game, roughly 29.2 percent of Kaepernick’s total attempts. With an entire offseason to condition and all of training camp to practice with his QB, I expect Crabtree’s 2014 per game stats to look more like his 2012 performance.

So what happens if we extrapolate those 2012 stats to a full 16-game season in 2014? It’s not outside the realm of possibility for Crabtree to end up with about 98 receptions for 1,400 yards and 13 TDs. In standard scoring, those totals would amount to 218 points, which would’ve made Crabtree the third-best WR in 2013. In PPR formats, those stats would total 316 points, which would’ve made Crabtree the top WR in 2013.

Oh, and did I mention that this assumes Kaepernick only throws the same amount as last year? Go and re-read why I think Kaepernick’s pass attempts will go up in 2014. Try not to drool too much.

Yes, at the end of the day, these are just dream numbers. But Kaepernick’s tendency to throw to Crabtree on about a third of all his attempts is grounded in reality. Crabtree is and will be Kaepernick’s favorite target in 2014, and he could have a monster year. For a guy whose ADP is currently in the fifth round, I will be reaching for Crabtree in every single league this year.

Meng Song is a writer for Follow him on Twitter @ms0ng, “like” him on Facebook or add him to your Google+ network.

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