Michael Crabtree missed training camp, preseason and the first five games of his rookie season with a holdout. In 2010 the receiver missed preseason with a neck injury. 2011 was the same story, except this time the ailment affected his foot.
Samuel Lam (formerly covering the 49ers for the Examiner, now with the NFL Network) and I got into a discussion on Twitter about Crabtree’s latest injury and he made a good point: this setback hurts the 49ers less than previous seasons because of their depth at wideout.
That being said, the person who benefits the most from wide receiver depth IS Crabtree. Even with Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker on the field in seasons past, Crabtree has always been the wide receiver to key on defensively. With Mario Manningham and Randy Moss on the field at the same time as Crabtree, he should see a significant amount attention paid elsewhere this season. His opportunities to play against single coverage will increase. More balls should be thrown his way.
That is to say, only if Alex Smith trusts him to catch them. History has shown that chemistry with Smith’s wideouts in the most important aspect of his passing game. It was developing with Josh Morgan in 2011 before his leg injury. It has always been true of his relationship with Davis.
Take the NFC Championship as an example:
TE Vernon Davis – 5 targets, 3 catches, 112 yds, 2 TDs
RB Frank Gore – 8 targets, 6 catches, 45 yards
WR Michael Crabtree – 5 targets, 1 catch, 3 yards
WRs Brett Swain & Kyle Williams – 0 targets
Smith targets (and completes passes to) players with whom he has developed chemistry. Conversely, he shies away from players he has had little time to work with. The offense probably could have done more if Smith had completed passes to his less notable options, since it’s not exceedingly difficult for a defense to shut down three players.
This is Crabtree’s best opportunity yet to have a breakout season. The 49ers will still focus on controlling the ball and limiting turnovers in 2012, so there’s a good chance Smith will opt to throw to an open Michael Crabtree underneath more often than he targets Randy Moss over the top.
Michael Crabtree’s injury has been reported as less than serious, but he still better heal up fast and find a way to build chemistry with Alex Smith. If he doesn’t, it’ll be the entire offense, not just Crabtree’s stat line, that suffers.