San Francisco 49ers: Demaryius Thomas

Friday, we looked at where Michael Crabtree ranks on a list of the top 10 potential free-agent wide receivers in 2015.

It's a strong class. In ESPN Insider Mike Sando’s ranking Insider, based on the opinions of NFL general managers and coaches, the San Francisco 49ers standout is No. 3 on the list.

If Crabtree isn’t re-signed or given the franchise tag, he would be very popular on the open market. So, it begs the question: What would the 49ers do if Crabtree leaves?

With the free-agent class being strong, the 49ers would likely consider using any money earmarked for Crabtree on a replacement in free agency. To help bring along the what-if game, I enlisted the help of ESPN analyst Matt Williamson.

Williamson reasons the top two receivers on Sando’s list -- Dallas' Dez Bryant and Denver's Demaryius Thomas -- would be too expensive for the 49ers. If they can’t get a deal done with Crabtree, they probably won’t be able to accommodate Bryant or Thomas, either.

Williamson also eliminated Denver’s Wes Welker (No. 7) and Atlanta’s Roddy White (No. 9) because of wear-and-tear. So, that is half the class off the table.

The others are Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson (No. 4), and Randall Cobb (No. 5), Baltimore’s Torrey Smith (No. 6), Jacksonville’s Cecil Shorts (No.8) and Indianapolis' Hakeem Nicks (No. 10).

Williamson thinks Nelson could be the best fit for the 49ers because of his overall skills. He also likes Smith as a fit because he can stretch the field.

Williamson thinks Cobb is too much of a slot receiver to replace Crabtree, and Shorts couldn’t fill the bill. He thinks Nicks, who the 49ers looked at this offseason, has too many injury concerns to be a reliable No. 1.

In the end, it appears the 49ers’ best approach is to extend Crabtree. They probably couldn’t do better, all things considered, by replacing him with a free agent.
One of the most interesting side stories in the NFL between now and the start of free agency next March will be how what will happen with a potentially powerful receiver class.

Michael Crabtree and the San Francisco 49ers will surely be watching closely.

There are 10 receivers who are poised to be free agents after the year that have to be considered top-flight wideouts. Crabtree is one of them.

ESPN Insider Mike Sando polled general managers Insider and coaches to put together a ranking of the top 10 potential receiver free agents. Crabtree ranked third on the list behind Dallas' Dez Bryant and Denver's Demaryius Thomas. Among the others on the list were Green Bay's Jordy Nelson at No. 4, Denver's Wes Welker at No. 7 and Atlanta's Roddy White at No. 9.

This what Sando wrote about Crabtree:
The 49ers had a hard time signing Crabtree as a rookie in part because Crabtree thought he was worth more than what players in his draft slot generally received. That difficult negotiation remains in my mind as Crabtree approaches free agency. He missed some of last season with a torn Achilles' tendon, placing greater importance on the 2014 season for setting his value. Will this be another tough negotiation? “Crabtree and Bryant are probably the two most talented guys on the list,” one of the GMs said. “Demaryius Thomas would be up there. Some people will worry about Crabtree's personality a little bit.”

This is how I would rank the top three: Thomas, Bryant, Crabtree.

Regardless, Crabtree would be highly sought after in free agency if it gets to that point. The 49ers have enough current salary cap room to potentially get a deal done with Crabtree done this year. Also, if it gets to that point, the 49ers could give Crabtree the franchise tag.

Whether Crabtree is signed this year or not, I'm sure others on this list will be signed. It will both lessen and set the market. Receivers will be in the spotlight in the NFL and Crabtree's future is a big part of the intrigue.