Michael Crabtree had plenty of doubters heading into the 2012 season, and I was one of them.
The No. 1 wideout for the San Francisco 49ers has always had the potential to be great (he was drafted by the Niners 10th overall in 2009), but set himself back his rookie year by holding out (missing five regular season games), and couldn’t put it all together in either of the following two seasons, though injuries did play their part in the frustration and disappointment.
Then came the Crabtree of 2012 and the Niners’ memorable run to Super Bowl XLVII.
It was a journey that couldn’t have been made without No. 15, the same receiver who caught just a single pass in the NFC Championship Game loss the year before. Not only did Crabtree come up with career highs of 85 catches, 1,105 receiving yards and nine touchdowns during the regular season in 2012, his performance throughout the ensuing playoff run was remarkable.
Crabs hauled in 20 of the 28 passes sent his way during the three-game stretch of postseason play, totaling 285 yards and three scores. After logging just three 100-yard performances over the first three years of his career, Crabtree went for 100+ in two of the three playoff games and five of the past eight games overall. In the 10 career NFL starts QB Colin Kaepernick has made, Crabtree broke the 100-yard mark in half of them.
But is it Kaepernick’s arrival that helped Crabtree realize his potential? Perhaps that is indeed a part of the formula. An increased to dedication to the game, particularly in the offseason, likely played the biggest role. The 2012 offseason was also the same time head coach Jim Harbaugh showered his No. 1 wideout with praise, noting that Crabtree had the “best pair of hands he’d ever seen“.
Well, he certainly did his part to prove Harbaugh right. According to the guys at Pro Football Focus, Crabtree’s conversion rate (or catch percentage) of passes sent his way was a remarkable 72 percent, second to only Randall Cobb of receivers who were targeted at least 100 times in 2012. He also racked up 543 yards after the catch, a number that ranked fourth in the NFL at season’s end.
His catch percentage was actually higher than that of Wes Welker (71.0), Danny Amendola (66.3) and Victor Cruz (62.5), all top-end WR’s whom, like Crabtree, do most of their damage running short-to-intermediate level routes. Impressive stuff, right?
At age 25, Crabtree likely has at least a decade of football left in him if he maintains this new-found high level of play. Kaepernick’s potential is out of this world, too, so together he and Crabs are looking to form one of the league’s most dangerous QB/WR combos for years to come.
I know catch percentage isn’t everything, but if you look back at the past five years, the only wideouts in any one season with at least a hundred targets and a catch percentage of 70 percent or higher was either an All-Pro WR, had an All-Pro QB throwing him the ball, or both.
Cobb, the leader in that stat for 2012, had Aaron Rodgers. Welker, who has finished in the top three each of the past five seasons, has long been Tom Brady‘s main man. In 2011, Marques Colston was the league leader, thanks in large part to Drew Brees.
This feat has only been pulled off 10 times since 2008, and Crabs is responsible for one of them. PFF uniquely grades every NFL player on every play and tallies up the numbers for the entire season.
Out of the receivers, Crabtree ranked seventh in the entire league, which is even more amazing considering the amount of snaps he saw (692) were significantly lower than anyone else in the top nine of their list (no one else in top nine took less than 982 snaps in 2012).
Crabtree was able to take his game to that next level in 2012 and proved a lot of people, myself included, wrong in the process. He didn’t see as many targets as some of the All-Pro receivers in this league, but he made the most of every opportunity and undoubtedly performed at the level of an All-Pro WR.
It’s important that he and Kaepernick continue to build chemistry moving forward, but at this point, it may only be a matter of time before Crabs is recognized as one of the game’s best at his position.