Since running back Frank Gore was drafted out of the University of Miami in 2005, the San Fransisco 49ers’ offense has revolved almost entirely around him. Gore has logged the most carries (2,187) and the most rushing yards (9,967) in 49ers’ history, and is currently 2nd among all 49ers in rushing yards per game. What’s been most impressive about Gore is that he has done well regardless of the offensive pieces around him, whether it be Alex Smith, J.T. O’Sullivan or Colin Kaepernick. Even with the recent offensive success under head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Gore was still considered the most important player, made evident by the 49ers making sure that his workload was light towards the end of the season and into the playoffs.
For better or for worse, that’s all about to change in 2014. For the first time since the Jeff Garcia days more than a decade ago, the offense is poised to revolve among the passing game. With the continued development of Kaepernick and the addition of wide receivers Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd, the pieces are in place for that to happen. With that being said, even with the addition of the aforementioned wide receivers, the most important offensive player not named Kaepernick on the 49ers’ offense this upcoming year is the wide receiver who has been on the 49ers the longest, and that’s Michael Crabtree.
Crabtree has shown flashes of being the star wide receiver who experts thought would be coming out of Texas Tech. He was the go-to-option who Smith relied upon as he resurrected his career, and he continued to find success when the 49ers handed over the reins of the offense to Kaepernick. Crabtree led the 49ers in receiving yards in both 2011 and 2012, and was ready to break out in 2013 before he went down with a torn Achilles tendon in May of that year. Crabtree missed 11 weeks as he recovered and without him on the field, the offense, and in particular Kaepernick, regressed.
Here’s a look at Kaepernick’s numbers with and without Crabtree:
The offense also scored at a slightly higher clip with Crabtree on the field, at 27 points per game vs. 25 points per game without him.
While there was a legitimate concern that Crabtree would not be the same player he was prior to his injury, his offensive explosion in the playoffs put those fears to rest. In the three playoff games, he had 11 catches of 10 or more yards, along with four plays of 20 or more yards. While he didn’t find the end zone, if you extrapolate those receiving numbers across a full season, you’re looking at a top 10 wide receiver.
In a division featuring defensive backs like Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson and Janoris Jenkins, having an efficient passing game is going to be critical. Crabtree’s presence on the field not only frees up the other receiving options on the 49ers, but also provides Kaepernick a security blanket that he clearly needs to play at a high level.
There’s no question that the pressure is still on Kaepernick to carry the 49ers over the hump, but there is no more vital player on the 49ers’ offense than Crabtree to make that happen. Gore and the running game are still important to maintain a balanced offense, but with the 49ers’ future connected with how much Kaepernick develops, Crabtree transiently becomes the key to the 49ers’ success.