When word got out that the San Francisco 49ers had interest in several available wide receivers this offseason, it brought up some questions about where the offense was headed. After all, the team had relied heavily on two-tight end sets under head coach Jim Harbaugh and rarely had three wideouts on the field at the same time. In fact, including the playoffs, the 49ers only used a three-wide receiver formation 22.8 percent of the time in 2013 (the league average was 54 percent). With Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin already in the fold for 2014, why would the team have interest in investing heavily in a third option that might not see the field?
The answer to that question might be twofold.
The first reason could be that the team is interested in changing their offensively philosophy from a power running based team to a more wide open attack. The 49ers lack a solid second tight end option behind Vernon Davis, as Vance McDonald struggled during his rookie season. McDonald only caught eight passes all year and never had more than one reception in a single game. Also, with Frank Gore most likely entering his final season with the team, it makes sense to start to center the offense around quarterback Colin Kaepernick. To do so, San Francisco will need to give the up-and-coming signal-caller more options to throw to in the passing game.
The second reason the 49ers may be looking at other receiving options is the contract status of Crabtree. The veteran will be a free agent following the 2014 season and will most likely be looking to get paid as one of the top players at his position. The issue is, Crabtree hasn’t earned it. While one could make the argument that Crabtree is heading into his prime, the fact of the matter is that he has not performed up to his reputation and has had trouble staying on the field at times.
Through five seasons in the NFL, Crabtree has only appeared in a full 16-game slate twice (2010, 2012) and broke the 1,000-yard mark just once (2012). If you take injuries (and holdouts) out of the picture and look at his average production over 16 games, he falls below the bar of a top flight receiver. The averages come out to be 70 receptions, 921 yards and five touchdowns over 16 contests.
Those in Crabtree’s camp could argue that he has had to deal with quarterback issues for much of his career as Alex Smith did not start to come into his own until 2011. Even with Smith playing well, he still wasn’t the type of quarterback who would put up big numbers. Smith threw for 3144 yards in 2011, which was the lowest total of any quarterback that started all 16 games that season. Once Kaepernick took over in 2012, Crabtree started to come into his own. In the last five games of that season, the duo hooked up 35 times for 538 yards and four touchdowns. They were unable to build on that success, however, as Crabtree suffered an Achilles’ injury prior to the start of 2013 and missed most of the year.
Look for the 49ers to continue to search for a viable third wide receiver option in the draft. The team has three picks in the first two rounds and will likely use one of those on a receiver. With Crabtree possibly leaving, Boldin aging and young Quinton Patton still unproven, it’s imperative for the team to start to plan for the future at the position.