A weekly look at a player whose performance must improve in 2011.
Michael Crabtree is one of the five or 10 most gifted wide receivers in all of football. His adjustment from Texas Tech's spread offense was a difficult one, and the start to his career was not the optimal path for success.
He also has not had the benefit of even mediocre quarterback play at the NFL level. Crabtree had a neck problem that didn't allow him to participate in the most recent preseason, and he certainly needs those precious reps. Thus far, Crabtree has been somewhat disappointing. New coach Jim Harbaugh absolutely needs to get more from Crabtree for San Francisco's offense to improve. A full offseason of work and development would be an excellent start.
Crabtree has very good size and knows how to use it. He plays strong and displays very good body control. He attacks the ball in the air with his strong hands and could develop some of the best ball skills at the wide receiver position in the league with more consistency and a little refinement. Crabtree also is very good after the catch and is physical in all aspects of wideout play. The sky is the limit for this 23-year-old.
But Crabtree isn't an elite speed guy and has not been much of a factor as a deep-ball wideout to this point. He had too many drops and must concentrate more on the finer points of playing the position -- including the sharpness and consistency of his route running. Crabtree is also an awful blocker, which was certainly a problem on a run-first offense. His effort in this department has to improve, because he certainly has the physical traits to excel at blocking. Crabtree caught four or fewer passes in 13 of the 16 games he played in last season. In 11 games as a rookie, Crabtree caught seven fewer passes than he did a year ago. That is not progress.
Crabtree eclipsed 61 receiving yards in only two games this past season. San Francisco needs him to produce on a week-to-week basis. Matching Crabtree with TE Vernon Davis, the 49ers could possibly have one of the best tandems in the league.
With a new offense and quite possibly a new quarterback, the 49ers need to do a better job of playing to Crabtree's strengths. Of course, Crabtree needs to put the work in as well and improve overall as a player, but Harbaugh would be wise to feature Crabtree in the red zone, as he can excel in tight quarters. Crabtree also could be an excellent wideout for slant routes and quick screens. San Francisco could feature him over the middle of the field. If he matures as a wideout, he could develop into the type of receiver who can mask suspect accuracy from his quarterback with his ability to go up and fight for the ball in the air. But to get the most out of Crabtree, the Niners need to have someone behind center who can consistently hit him in stride so he can become a running back with the ball in his hands after the catch.
There are a lot of factors at play here. But the 49ers might have the most talented roster in their division. Getting Crabtree to step up and play like a true No. 1 wide receiver will be critical in fulfilling that potential in Harbaugh's first season.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.