Commentary

Fantasy fallout of Crabtree's injury

Kaepernick loses major target, but Boldin's value now on the rise

Updated: May 23, 2013, 1:19 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree suffered a torn Achilles tendon during offseason workouts, putting his 2013 season in serious jeopardy. While we've recently seen Demaryius Thomas recover quickly from a torn Achilles in recent years -- Thomas suffered his injury in February 2011 and might've been ready to play Week 1 that season if he hadn't broken a pinkie in training camp -- and while Niners coach Jim Harbaugh has proclaimed this is not a season-ending injury for Crabtree, ESPN's Adam Schefter has reported a potential recovery time of six months. If that's the case, Crabtree's fantasy football value for '13 is basically nil. As such, I've removed Crabtree from my ranks for the upcoming season.

[+] EnlargeKaepernick-Crabtree
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezMichael Crabtree (15) had finally gotten into a groove last season when Colin Kaepernick took over at quarterback.

The fallout here is obviously significant. Crabtree's career hit the stratosphere when Colin Kaepernick took over under center last season. (Crabtree averaged 12.5 standard-league fantasy points per game with Kaepernick starting and caught 20 passes for 285 yards and three TDs during San Francisco's playoff run.) Without that production, it's fair to wonder whether Kaepernick should be downgraded heading into the '13 season.

For the moment, though, I'm not ready to drop Kaepernick beneath my No. 6 spot among QBs. I'll admit that before Wes Welker signed with the Denver Broncos, I was flirting with having Kaepernick ranked above Peyton Manning at No. 5, but Welker's addition and Crabtree's injury have thoroughly scrapped that notion. Nevertheless, all the good things Kaepernick can do with his feet still apply, plus I believe Vernon Davis will figure out how to be productive with Kaepernick starting. Most importantly, I'm convinced that a team with Super Bowl aspirations such as the 49ers must bolster their wide receiver corps now. Put it this way: The only player in my top 120 receivers who's currently a free agent is Brandon Lloyd. I would be surprised if the Niners don't consider signing him. The bottom line for Kaepernick is that while it's unlikely he'll suddenly be presented with a receiving option as good as Crabtree, I also consider it unlikely that he'll enter the year with his wide receiver corps as presently constituted.

Let's talk about those current wideouts. Anquan Boldin is starting to look like a savvier acquisition than anyone could've imagined back in March. Boldin probably ascends to the Niners' No. 1 job. But is he anything close to  a replacement for Crabtree's skills? On the one hand, I look at where Crabtree and Boldin lined up last season, and worry. According to ESPN Stats & Information, in '12 Crabtree ran about 35 percent of his routes out of the slot, but with the Baltimore Ravens last year, Boldin ran about 60 percent of his routes from the slot. The Ravens treated Boldin like a glorified tight end, but the 49ers now have a glaring need for a WR who can play mostly outside the numbers. That could be a problem.

[+] EnlargeAnquan Boldin
Jack Gruber/USA TODAY SportsAnquan Boldin could be a better replacement for Michael Crabtree than you might think.

Still, if you're tempted to say that Crabtree is clearly a better downfield threat than Boldin, think again. Last season, Boldin saw 15 targets that traveled 20-plus yards in the air. That modest total tied him for 48th among all NFL pass catchers (for reference, Calvin Johnson led the league with 48 such targets, and Boldin's former teammate Torrey Smith was second with 42). But amazingly, Crabtree saw only eight such targets all last season! That total tied him for 83rd! Sure, make the argument that half of those games were helmed by Alex Smith, but that's still an amazingly small total. So in some ways, perhaps the older, "lumbering" Boldin isn't as ill-suited for Crabtree's role as you might think.

Nevertheless, I can't rank Boldin as highly as I did Crabtree. Whereas before this injury, Crabtree was No. 16 on our WR list, I can only boost Boldin to No. 32. If the Niners wind up not signing another veteran wideout like Lloyd, perhaps I'll consider raising Boldin higher. For now, though, that's where I've got him.

As for the other 49ers wideouts, Mario Manningham blew out multiple knee ligaments in Week 16 last season and is a strong candidate to begin the year on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Kyle Williams is only slightly ahead of Manningham, having torn his ACL a month earlier, plus he's more of a special teams contributor. That means '12 first-rounder A.J. Jenkins and '13 fourth-rounder Quinton Patton have opportunities. Jenkins played in only three games as a rookie and didn't catch a single pass, but he's fast. And Patton was productive in college but didn't play against big-time competition at Louisiana Tech. Either guy would be a mere fantasy flier -- and undraftable in a standard fantasy league -- even if they wind up duking it out for the No. 2 WR job.