NFC West: Michael Crabtree
PHOENIX – While many observers may think Michael Crabtree was more trouble for the San Francisco 49ers than he was worth since they took him with the No. 10 overall pick of the 2009 draft, Trent Baalke apparently does not subscribe to that theory.
Not when the Niners general manager left open the possibility of the team re-signing Crabtree, who has found a dry market for his services as an unrestricted free agent.
“As long as Michael’s out there, he’s just like any other UFA; you never say never,” Baalke said Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings. “Michael did a heck of a job for us for six years.”
Crabtree has steered clear from the police blotter for a team that has become infamous for arrests the past three years. But his 49ers tenure began with a hiccup as he wanted money above his draft slot, held out the first four games of his NFL career, and was inactive for one game after signing his contract.
Foot and lower leg injuries have played a part in slowing him from becoming the game-changing receiver many thought he would be as a two-time Biletnikoff Award winner at Texas Tech.
Crabtree did have a career season in 2012, when he caught 85 passes for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns. But he missed all but five games in 2013 after tearing an Achilles’ the following offseason. He had 69 catches for 698 yards (a career-low 10.3 yards per catch average) with four TDs in 16 games last season.
He lamented his fall from grace as Colin Kaepernick's top target by calling himself a “third-down receiver” and a “fourth option” in the Niners offense.
The only free-agent visit Crabtree has taken thus far was to the Miami Dolphins last week.
Yes, when the San Francisco 49ers took him with the No. 10 overall pick of the 2009 draft out of Texas Tech, Crabtree was viewed as their deep threat of the future. But injuries have piled up to slow him down, and after averaging a career-low 10.3 yards per reception in 2014 (take away that 51-yard catch and his average falls to 9.7 yards) Crabtree is likely gone as a free agent.
No wonder, then, that in his Insider mock draft 2.0, ESPN draftnik Todd McShay went with a receiver for the Niners at No. 15 overall in Ohio State’s Devin Smith, a solid (6-foot-1, 197 pounds) deep threat who averaged an eye-popping 28.2 yards per catch for the national champion Buckeyes this past season.
Smith, who caught 33 passes for 931 yards and 12 touchdowns, led the country by averaging a TD every 2.75 catches. So yeah, Smith would address a need for the Niners as someone who could potentially take the top off a defense for quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
He is raw on routes underneath, though that is the domain of veteran Anquan Boldin, who remains under contract.
Even if Crabtree were to re-sign and return to Santa Clara, California, the addition of Smith might be too intriguing for the Niners to pass. Unless, of course, they believe more pressing issues should be addressed first on the offensive or defensive lines, or in the secondary.
McShay, though, has been consistent in his belief that the Niners need to draft a receiver as he had them taking another Devin -- Michigan’s Devin Funchess -- in his first mock draft.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- While Frank Gore said he was open to returning to the San Francisco 49ers next season, another pending free agent on offense was not quite so, well, expansive.
Asked if he wanted to come back, receiver Michael Crabtree said, “Depends. I mean, I don’t even want to talk about it right now.”
Crabtree is averaging a career-low 10.3 yards per catch on his 64 catches in which he also has four touchdowns. He appeared in only five games last year while recovering from a torn Achilles.
“I feel I’ve contributed a lot to the team,” Crabtree said. “I can’t wait to see what’s next, the next chapter of my career, to maximize my talent.
“I’ve grown a lot.”
Gore, meanwhile, was taking a wait-and-see approach.
“I’ve got to see what changes we do,” he said. “Hopefully all the key guys can be back. If they are, we’ve got a shot.”
Gore mentioned Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin and Justin Smith as guys he’s like to return.
Gore also was asked his thoughts on Jim Harbaugh, who may also be on the Niners' sidelines for the final time this Sunday.
"He's my best coach," Gore said. "I didn't enjoy here until we started winning. Since he's been here, I've been winning."
And Harbaugh's take on Gore?
"A trusted friend and a known ally," Harbaugh said. "A known agent."
“When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re going to get. Don’t you ever talk about me … Crabtree, don’t you open your mouth about the best, or I’m going to shut it for you real quick. L.O.B.”
Legion of Boom aside, both Crabtree and Sherman are having subpar seasons. But Crabtree has never had real success against the Seahawks.
In nine games against Seattle, including the playoffs, Crabtree has yet to catch a touchdown pass, compared to seven TDs in nine regular-season games against the Arizona Cardinals and seven in 10 such games against the St. Louis Rams.
Then there’s this from ESPN Stats & Information: Crabtree has caught only 49.2 percent of his targets against Seattle in his career, compared to 64.0 percent against the rest of the NFL.
Crabtree’s career numbers against the Seahawks: 3.4 receptions per game. 38.9 receiving yards per game and six drops.
Keep in mind, only six of those games have come since the Seahawks drafted Sherman.
And in last January’s NFC Championship Game, while Crabtree did have four receptions, none came on the side of the field usually “patrolled” by Sherman, per ESPN Stats & Information.
But also keep this in mind: While Sherman led the league with eight interceptions last season, he has only one this season.
Neither player took questions from the media about the game in a short week.
Sure, the last time the San Francisco 49ers met the Seattle Seahawks, the NFC title was on the line and Sherman knocked away Colin Kaepernick's last-gasp fade pass to Michael Crabtree to turn it into a game-clinching interception for Malcolm Smith in the end zone.
And who can forget Sherman's postgame rant?
"I'm the best corner in the game," he told Fox Sports. "When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you're going to get. Don't you ever talk about me.
"Crabtree, don't you open your mouth about the best, or I'm going to shut it for you real quick. LOB."
Sherman was giving a shout-out to the Seahawks' hard-hitting secondary, deemed the Legion of Boom. He was requested for a Tuesday conference call with Bay Area reporters, but the Seahawks' P.R. department declined to make him available.
Crabtree has spoken only on rare occasions this season, but Kaepernick did talk to reporters in the locker room on Monday. He did not take the bait, even as it is more than 10 months old.
Asked if Crabtree was anticipating the rematch with Sherman, Kaepernick said, "It's another game for him. I don't think he's worried about anything else."
Then surely Kaepernick must have a view on Sherman.
"I don't have any," he said. "I'm worried about what we're doing."
Kaepernick said he had no communication with Sherman at offseason events. And while many quarterbacks have shied away from throwing at Sherman, Kaepernick said, "I'll throw to whoever's open."
And it's just Monday.
Trailing the New Orleans Saints by three with 94 seconds remaining in regulation, the Niners faced fourth-and-10 from their own 22-yard line. Fail to convert and the Saints take over on downs, run out the clock and San Francisco falls to 4-5 on the season. And, as ESPN Stats & Information pointed out before the game, only 13 percent of teams since 1990 to start with a 4-5 record have qualified for the playoffs.
So Colin Kaepernick took the snap, rolled out and surveyed the field as he bought time.
“It turned into a scramble,” Kaepernick said.
That’s when he spied Michael Crabtree on the opposite end of things. All by himself.
“Crab made a great play getting across the field. Our offensive line did a great job giving us time.”
So much so that Kaepernick was able to stop his running motion, plant his foot, set himself -- truly, that was the key -- and hurl a deep pass across his body. Officially, the pass was a 51-yard completion, though the ball traveled through the air for closer to 60 yards.
And when it came down, it nestled into the waiting arms of Crabtree at the Saints’ 27-yard line.
“He was the third or fourth guy I looked at while I was scrambling,” Kaepernick said with a smile. “So I was happy I found somebody who was open on that.”
Saints cornerback Corey White said a zone breakdown allowed Crabtree to roam free on the play.
“When he was throwing it,” White said, “I didn’t know who he was throwing to. They just made a good play. We weren’t defending that.
“It was a zone and he got behind us. It was a Cover-2 zone. When coverage breaks down, you just have to find someone and cover them. All of the zones get thrown out the window. You just have to find someone and cover them.”
Nobody was within 15 yards of Crabtree, though.
And no, Crabtree was not exactly thrilled with his lot in the game. Not after catching just two other passes for 11 yards.
“I’m a third-down receiver,” Crabtree told reporters. “I mean, I’m like the third option. So I come in and do my job.
“Fourth down, I guess when they need me. I guess that’s when I play.”
Truth be told, Crabtree, who entered the game with seven drops on the season, was targeted eight times.
The reception put the Niners in field-goal position and Phil Dawson’s 45-yarder with 1:08 to play tied the game at 24. Dawson then won it with 5:14 remaining in overtime with a 35-yarder after Ahmad Brooks’ strip-sack of Drew Brees and Chris Borland’s recovery of the fumble.
None of it, though, would have been possible without Kaepernick’s fourth-down heave, and Crabtree’s apparently reluctant catch.
“Great vision and great concentration by Michael,” Niners coach Jim Harbaugh said. “[Kaepernick] escaped in the pocket, bought time and found a receiver.
“That wasn’t the intent of the play. Colin does a great job of that. I’m glad he did it that way. I am glad he has the arm strength to get it that far.”
Plus, it kept the 49ers alive in the playoff race … for at least another week.
The 49ers enter their bye week licking their wounds, physical and mental, after Sunday night's 42-17 thumping at the Denver Broncos.
The Niners receivers should spend their time off standing in front of a JUGS passing machine, catching ball after ball after ball. Or track down Lester Hayes or Fred Biletnikoff across the bay and borrow some old-school Stickum in time for their next game, Nov. 2 against the St. Louis Rams at Levi's Stadium.
Of course, Stickum is now illegal, but the 49ers' pass-catchers were dropping passes nonetheless.
Especially receivers Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis. The trio combined for four drops, per Pro Football Focus, with Crabtree clanging two.
Particularly galling was the normally sure-handed Boldin, quarterback Colin Kaepernick's Mr. Dependable, dropping one in the end zone that hit him in the hands on third-and-goal from the 4-yard line midway through the second quarter.
If Boldin holds on to the ball, the 49ers creep to within 14-7. Instead, they had to settle for a 22-yard Phil Dawson field goal, and the rout was on.
Asked specifically about the drops after the game, coach Jim Harbaugh evaded the question.
"The Broncos played a great game," Harbaugh said. "They really were good and better at every phase and played a heck of a ballgame."
And if you're scratching your head over that particular answer to that specific of a question, imagine Harbaugh's reaction watching his receivers drop catchable passes.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Prime time is the right time for a game between teams that entered the season at the front of the Super Bowl conversation.
At least that is how Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. sees it.
"You face any other top teams in the league, you always want to get up for them," Harris Jr. said. "It’s Sunday night prime time, so we want to have a good showing. We want to go out there and show we’re definitely a contender, definitely one of the top teams. ... They have a great team; they’ve been together for a while, so they know how to play together in these big games."
The San Francisco 49ers will be the fifth team the Broncos (4-1) have played this season that won at least 10 games in 2013 -- "we’ve had a salty schedule," is how Broncos coach John Fox has put it -- and the 49ers (4-2) own the only win against the Dallas Cowboys this season and have won three in a row.
ESPN's 49ers reporter Paul Gutierrez and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss the matchup:
Legwold: Paul, it seems, at least from the outside, like there has been plenty of turmoil this season with reports 49ers players are tuning Jim Harbaugh out and that Harbaugh won’t return after this season. What’s the mood in the locker room? And how do you think Harbaugh interacts with the team?
Gutierrez: It’s important to note that most, if not all, of these reports have come from national reporters, particularly from a certain league-owned media outlet. And to the conspiracy theorist in me, that means the leaks are coming from within the 49ers and above Harbaugh’s pay grade. As I’ve said before, Harbaugh likes to make his players uncomfortable because he believes that brings out the best in them. I wonder if that same mentality is being thrust upon Harbaugh’s coaching skills. As far as the locker room goes, to a man and on the record, the players say they have Harbaugh’s back, with quarterback Colin Kaepernick saying he would go to "war" with his coach. And technically, Harbaugh still has a year left on his deal. It’s just that talks of extension have been tabled until after the season. It has made for a wild ride thus far, no doubt, and Harbaugh has made a point to wander through the locker room to chat with players during media access periods during the week.
Speaking of bedside manner, Fox has been seen as a folksy players' coach from yesteryear, at least, to the outsider. How much of his personality has rubbed off on the players, and is that a reason the Broncos have been able to shake off the sting of last February’s Super Bowl disaster?
Legwold: When Fox missed four games last season because of heart valve surgery, the word most of the players, as well as the coaches on Fox’s staff, used to describe what was missing while Fox was away was "energy." Those who have worked with him say Fox’s greatest attribute, beyond the on-field work, is giving those in the organization the belief their job is an important part of the process, no matter where the job fits within the organization. Yes, the Broncos have won plenty of games along the way, and having Peyton Manning at quarterback is a spectacular starting point for any head coach, but Fox has support in the locker room, in the executive offices, and a contract extension signed this past offseason. That said, he has also been the guy in charge when the Broncos have come up short, and in the case of the Super Bowl, 35 points short.
Moving toward the field, how have the 49ers' wide receivers helped Kaepernick?
Gutierrez: At first, it was a hot mess. The 49ers seemed to forget they were a team built on a power running game, and Kaepernick looked out of sorts with all of the shiny toys at his disposal, with Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd joining Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin as wideouts, and tight end Vernon Davis. Then, about Week 4, the 49ers rediscovered their identity behind running back Frank Gore and, voila, the passing game blossomed. This past week, Kaepernick threw three touchdown passes to three different wideouts without an interception. Crabtree might be his favorite receiver, and Lloyd has become his most explosive down the left sideline, but Boldin is his Mr. Dependable underneath. It is, without a doubt, helping Kaepernick’s maturation process. Especially since there does not seem to be any selfishness going on with the receivers. Just healthy competition. At least, that’s how it looks when the team is winning.
Manning, meanwhile, does not seem to have missed a beat after losing receivers Eric Decker to the New York Jets and Wes Welker to injury. Is Manning simply so good that he elevates the play of those around him, or is it a scheme thing in Denver?
Legwold: In all that Manning has done in his career, the fact he has lifted his play to its current level following spinal fusion surgery in 2011 -- his fourth neck surgery -- is a remarkable achievement. The guy has started 37 games for the Broncos and thrown 107 touchdown passes in those games. The offense was built for him; he runs it with complete freedom to change any call to any play at any time. And at this stage of his career, with his work habits, he might think the game better than anyone who has played the position. But all of that said, there is a perfect-storm effect in Denver as well. Adam Gase is an innovative risk-taker as an offensive coordinator who paid his coaching dues to earn his spot. Receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas are elite players, Welker is routinely called the best slot receiver in the NFL by opposing coaches, and in his time with Manning, Emmanuel Sanders will go from a player folks thought was pretty good to Pro Bowl worthy. So Manning has been very good for the Broncos, and the Broncos, with Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway calling the personnel shots for the team, have built a quality landing spot for Manning.
Some teams have been aggressive coming after Manning with the blitz, like the Cardinals, while the Jets consistently dropped eight into coverage last weekend. How do you think the 49ers will approach it?
Gutierrez: Let’s just say, both ways. Yes, the 49ers brought the house against the St. Louis Rams’ Austin Davis, sacking him five times (the total doubled the 49ers’ season sack total to 10) and pressuring him on 44 percent of his dropbacks (a season high for the 49ers), but, as you know, Manning loves it when teams blitz him. His 2.25-second release is the second best in the league, again, per our friends at ESPN Stats & Info. Yet, his 92.8 total rating when not pressured since joining Denver in 2012 is the league’s best, and the 49ers rank 23rd in pressure percentage. So yeah, the best way to affect Manning is by bringing pressure. Just pick your poison in doses, I guess, right? What might make it all a moot point is the potential loss of All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who injured a toe Monday night. We’re talking about a linebacker corps already missing the suspended Aldon Smith and the recuperating NaVorro Bowman.
Manning, who needs two touchdown passes to tie Brett Favre's career record (508), always comes across as disinterested in records and his legacy. But surely, holding the passing touchdown record would mean something to him, right? How important do you think holding the mark would be to him?
Legwold: This is all something he will have to get used to as many of these records approach, especially if he plays one or two more seasons following this one. Certainly his legacy is important to him, but it gets lost sometimes because he is so competitive. People talk about his intellect and his ability to digest information and recall things he has seen in his career. But it would be impossible to play as many consecutive games as he played before his spinal fusion surgery kept him out of the 2011 season (208 consecutive regular-season games) and to push himself as hard as he does if he were not one of the most competitive people in the game. So, in that vein he wants Super Bowls and knows his career clock is winding down. So, though the records will be something he respects, and at some point enjoys, his desire to play for a Super Bowl champion trumps everything right now, including the touchdown mark.
The 49ers are already down three starters in the defensive front seven in nose tackle Glenn Dorsey (left biceps), inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman (left knee) and outside linebacker Aldon Smith (nine-game league-mandated suspension).
Also active is receiver Michael Crabtree, who missed practice Wednesday but was limited Thursday and Friday and listed as questionable to play on Friday.
Right guard Alex Boone, who ended his holdout on Monday, is active, though it is unknown if he will start. Joe Looner handled the position in the preseason.
Here are the 49ers’ inactives: QB Josh Johnson, WR Quinton Patton, CB Chris Cook, RT Anthony Davis, DT Quinton Dial and DT Tank Carradine.
Rookie backup center Marcus Martin (knee) and right tackle Anthony Davis (hamstring) also sat out practice.
Martin suffered his injury in the 49ers’ third exhibition game, against the San Diego Chargers, and is expected to be out at least six weeks. Davis, meanwhile, is still rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery -- he did not play in an exhibition game -- but the hamstring is a new development.
“Boldin led the NFL in third-down receptions (33), receiving yards (529) and first downs (529) last season,” according to ESPN Stats & Info. “His 1,179 receiving yards in 2013 were the most by a 49er since Terrell Owens in 2002.”
Left guard Mike Iupati was No. 53 (he was 32nd last year) and receiver Michael Crabtree was No. 51, improving from No. 78.
“Crabtree’s drop percentage has gone down each year of his career (3.2 percent last season),” ESPN Stats & Information wrote. “He averaged a career-high 7.0 yards after the catch (per reception) last season despite coming off an Achilles injury.”
Other 49ers players already listed: right tackle Anthony Davis, who was No. 81 among offensive players. Strong safety Antoine Bethea (No. 97), linebacker Ahmad Brooks (No. 74) and free safety Eric Reid (No. 71) are in the rankings of defensive players so far.
It's just that with Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin already on the roster, Johnson being Colin Kaepernick's go-to guy was not the team's motive when it shipped a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2015 draft to the Buffalo Bills for him.
“I'm pretty sure everybody already knows the bulk of it will be with Crab and Boldin,” Johnson said Wednesday. “So we're just fitting in right after them.”
In fact, to make his case more appealing, Johnson has worked at all three receiver spots in camp.
“[I'm] not necessarily thinking who's going to be out there in certain personnel [groups],” he said, “just, whenever you get your opportunity, let's make it work. Because that's what we're all thinking. We have a lot of great players, a lot of good players that can make plays.
“Everybody can't be on the field at once. So there's going to be times when you're called upon and just, hopefully, you show up.”
That's exactly what Johnson, a seventh-round draft choice of the Bills out of Kentucky in 2008, did with three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons from 2010 to 2012. That's something not even Hall of Famer Andre Reed did in 15 years with the Bills.
Johnson averaged 79 catches, 1,041 yards and eight TD catches in those years, before missing four games last season and finishing with 52 catches for 597 yards and three touchdowns.
“I think we definitely understand how he can fit in," 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said of Johnson. “I really believe ... that we just need to keep working to develop the level of chemistry that we want.
“Really happy to have Stevie and I think he'll bring a lot to the table. Have a good feel for his skill set. I love his energy out there and just us as a unit need to continue to work every day to develop that chemistry.”
A few highlights, then, of the 49ers' final public practice.
- Wide receiver Michael Crabtree was still not in attendance, as he was in Texas the day before for the birth of his son Michael III.
- Even before the public practice was cut short, the poor condition of the field was obvious, from divots flying out when players made cuts to the discolored spots in the middle of the field. And if Bruce Ellington tweaking his right ankle in a one-on-one drill with cornerback Chris Culliver was not proof enough, then Stevie Johnson taking a spill untouched on an out pattern at the goal line and jerking his left leg sealed it.
- Phil Dawson, one of the more accurate kickers in NFL history, continued to work on his craft after missing a pair of field goals in Sunday’s 34-0 exhibition loss to the Denver Broncos by kicking numerous field goals. If Andy Lee was not holding, then Dawson had a metal holder in his place so he could work solo.
- Ellington, LaMichael James and veteran Anquan Boldin were the three players fielding punts.
- Cornerback Tramaine Brock picked off McLeod Bethel-Thompson on a pass intended for David Reed on the right sideline and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown.
But with right guard Alex Boone’s holdout waged on, the 49ers quarterback was asked if he would like for some of that money to go to Boone.
“I think that’s something that the front office, that’s their decision,” Kaepernick said. “For me, I tried to do something where we gave them space to be able to get players back now. Who they sign and what they do with it is really up to them.”
Coach Jim Harbaugh would not touch the topic.
“As always, we don’t talk about contracts publically,” Harbaugh said. “Rarely do we talk about it in any form or fashion. We don’t feel it’s in anybody’s best interest to do that.”
While starters like running back Frank Gore, receiver Michael Crabtree, left guard Mike Iupati and cornerback Chris Culliver are entering contract years, Boone was signed to a four-year extension on Dec. 8, 2011, that runs through the 2015 season. Boone did not take part in any of the team's offseason activities and is subject to a $30,000 a day fine, per CSNBayArea.com.
The 49ers have more than $8.2 million in salary-cap space, per ESPN Stats & Info.
Because of heavy competition elsewhere, the 49ers will likely only carry two quarterbacks. They finished last season that way. The competition will be to see if undrafted rookie Kory Faulkner can take McLeod Bethel-Thompson's spot on the practice squad.
RUNNING BACKS (5)
The fact that the 49ers drafted Hyde in the second round and Lattimore is healthy means some tough decisions will have to be made. Hunter is too valuable to let go. That means 2012 second-round pick LaMichael James will have difficulty making the roster.
WIDE RECEIVERS (6)
The 49ers are so much deeper here this year than last. That means they will likely have to keep six receivers. Lloyd may look good and Patton has too much potential to give up on. That means it could be tough for Kassim Osgood to make it even though he is a special teams cog.
TIGHT ENDS (3)
If Davis ends his holdout, I can't see the 49ers keeping more than three tight ends because of the glut at receiver. Unless Garrett Celek has a big camp, he may be in trouble. Carrier intrigues the 49ers because of his size and speed.
OFFENSIVE LINE (8)
- Joe Staley
- Anthony Davis
- Alex Boone
- Mike Iupati
- Daniel Kilgore
- Marcus Martin
- Jonathan Martin
- Joe Looney
Assuming Boone ends his holdout, this is a pretty nice group of eight players. It's improved from last year. A solid veteran like Adam Snyder and a promising youngster like Ryan Seymour will have trouble making the team.
DEFENSIVE LINE (9)
- Justin Smith
- Ray McDonald
- Glenn Dorsey
- Tank Carradine
- Tony Jerod-Eddie
- Quinton Dial
- Ian Williams
- Kaleb Ramsey
This is another power spot. It's deep. Players like Jerod-Eddie and Dial are too valuable to cut. Ramsey has looked good and I have a hunch the 49ers may like him too much to expose him to the waiver wire. That means Demarcus Dobbs could be in trouble.
Most teams carry six linebackers but the 49ers are stacked here, especially with NaVorro Bowman out for about half the season. Because fifth-round pick Lynch is promising he should make the roster. Dan Skuta is an excellent player, but there might not be any room for him. I could see him being one of those later-summer Trent Baalke trade specials because he has value.
This unit is in flux, but I see Johnson making it. Don't be surprised if there is some in-camp jockeying as the 49ers look for the best mix.
Ward, the 49ers' first-round pick, will play nickel cornerback as a rookie, but projects long term as a safety. Ventrone and Spillman should stick because they are great on special teams. Craig Dahl could be in trouble.
This group is set and it's excellent.