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Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Which offensive players can become elite?

By Mike Sando

Michael Crabtree
Will Michael Crabtree become the elite player the 49ers envisioned when they drafted him?
San Francisco 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree qualifies as the most compelling and enigmatic player in the NFC West this offseason.

In recent weeks, various reports have suggested Crabtree was not attending the 49ers' player-organized workouts, that he likely would attend, that he could be doing more and that an invitation still might be pending.

Crabtree presents an inviting target for quarterbacks, and for criticism. His is the high draft choice who missed nearly one-third of his rookie season in a fight over money, then put together a sophomore season that produced more questions than answers regarding just where Crabtree is headed.

The third-year wide receiver prevailed comfortably in unscientific polling as the young, unaccomplished player most likely to one day join Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald among the 10 best offensive players in the league, not counting quarterbacks.

Seattle Seahawks tackle Russell Okung was the only other serious contender, although 15 percent thought I should have listed other candidates as options.

Okung, the Seahawks' second-year left tackle, stood out to me and to Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. as more likely than Crabtree to achieve elite status.

Williamson pointed to Cardinals running backs Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams as the other NFC West players with enough raw talent to achieve such status, despite serious questions about Wells' career flight path. Williamson also thought the 49ers' Mike Iupati could soon emerge as the NFL's best guard, a distinction that might not be enough to rank among the 10 best offensive players even when excluding quarterbacks.

I'll pick up the conversation from there, mixing my own comments with yours and punctuating them with input from Williamson.

shane49er27: Crabtree would improve the most if he would go to team workouts and be a team player, so I'll give it to Russell Okung.

Mike Sando: Extracting meaning from attendance at voluntary workouts organized by teammates during a lockout seems unwise. Attendance varies wildly throughout the league. Crabtree's participation would send a positive message. Multiple attempts to reach him through his representatives over the past 10 days have not succeeded. But the 49ers are not the Patriots. They do not have Brady or another quarterback with the power to pull a roster together for workouts.

Matt Williamson: Crabtree is a long way from being a top-10 wide receiver, let alone a top-10 offensive player. I loved him coming out and I still do not dislike him, but he has no body of work to this point. I think this new offense will help him a lot. He is going to run a lot of slants, run-after-the-catch stuff. He is not a big deep threat, but he has good ball skills, size, strength, run-after-the-catch.

Hank_Moody: I don't think we're going to see Crabtree's true potential until the Niners have a quarterback that can get him the ball on a consistent basis.

Russell Okung
Russell Okung has the potential to become one of the best tackles in the league.
Matt Williamson: Better coaching and quarterback play would help him. He needs to mature. He put himself behind the eight ball by missing so much of his rookie season and he was already coming out of that crazy Texas Tech spread offense. From a football standpoint, his learning curve is bigger.

Mike Sando: What about Okung? He missed six games to injury as a rookie and never really hit stride. At his best, however, Okung was formidable. The way he held up against the Chicago Bears' Julius Peppers in Week 6 stood out.

Matt Williamson: Okung might be the best tackle in the league before long. I love him.

timbod99: I don't understand why the Rams' Rodger Saffold doesn't make the list. I wouldn't consider him already established, and based upon one season of performance, he's been a better left tackle than Okung. Okung is more highly touted than Saffold, but until he can play 16 games and outperform Saffold, I think Saffold belongs in this poll instead of Okung.

Mike Sando: You're right at the moment based on how well Saffold played over the course of a full season. Okung's superior talent gives him a chance to be better in the long term. That came into play for the purposes of a discussion focusing on players with the ability to rank among the very best in the NFL. Okung is that type of prospect. That is why the Arizona running backs drew consideration even though others -- take Seattle's Justin Forsett or the Cardinals' Tim Hightower in the division -- have accomplished more.

Matt Williamson: Williams maybe could be that type of guy. Wells could be that guy, but I would never say it was going to happen. He has the potential. He fell in the draft because of all the rumblings that he was not that competitive, that he'll step out of bounds when he should blast somebody. He hasn't improved on his pass protection. Those were all the worries. Otherwise, Wells was the most talented back in the draft: big, fast, strong and agile. He has it all. He would be high on my list of  the most talented running backs in the NFL. He could be a top-10 guy, whereas Hightower never could be.

ryanvdonk: No love for big Mike Williams?

Mike Sando: Williams has the talent. He was a top-10 draft choice. He remains unestablished despite a promising return season in 2010.

Matt Williamson: He is what he is. He will catch a lot of balls and be big and strong, but I don't think his ceiling is as high.

Mike Sando: Not counting quarterbacks, NFC West teams have drafted three offensive players among the top-10 overall selections over the past three years. No division has drafted as many. Okung and the St. Louis Rams' Jason Smith are offensive linemen. Crabtree, as a receiver, has the greatest opportunity to stand out. At this point, however, he seems as likely to disappoint as to excel. He wasn't even the most promising young player on the 49ers' offense last season.

Matt Williamson: Nobody is going to vote for a guard, but Mike Iupati could be the best guard in the league one year from now. That is not far-fetched. He was very unrefined coming out of Idaho and was a holding machine who kept his hands really wide. He was more of a grabber. The speed of the NFL game was a monster adjustment. His rookie season was way off the charts in terms of what he showed relative to where he came from in terms of competition, fundamentals, those things.

Mike Sando: Some of the big-name guards in the league are winding down or retiring. There's a chance for Iupati to make a name for himself.

Matt Williamson: He's great at pulling, great in space and can mash you off the line.

bry_paz: The Seahawks need some skill players to put on this list. I hope Golden Tate steps his game up. He definitely has the ability to be a big-time playmaker.

Mike Sando: Expect Tate to play more this season now that the Seahawks have a new offensive coordinator. Getting young players on the field should be more of a priority. Seattle's personnel department had Tate rated as a first-round talent, so we'll see.

Overall, I noticed right away that Seattle and St. Louis didn't have clear candidates for inclusion on the list of offensive players with elite potential. The Rams have high hopes for rookie tight end Lance Kendricks, but he would have to transcend the position and exceed all reasonable expectations to factor in. The 49ers' Vernon Davis has been to multiple Pro Bowls at a tight end, but he still got no votes among the 10 best non-quarterbacks on offense.

Matt Williamson: There are not that many legitimate candidates in the league to begin with. And then your division is pretty weak.

Mike Sando: On that note, I'm outta here.