Michael CrabtreeThe void of Jerry Rice, the greatest wide receiver of all time, casts a looming shadow over the San Francisco 49ers much like Levi’s Stadium does today over the 49ers’ Santa Clara headquarters on a sunny afternoon. Since San Francisco selected Jerry Rice with the 16th overall pick in the 1985 draft, the 49ers have used four first round picks on wide receivers in hopes of discovering another Jerry Rice. In 1995, the 49ers selected J.J. Stokes with the 10th overall pick. Rashaun Woods was the 31st overall pick of the 2004 draft. Michael Crabtree fell to the 49ers at the 10th overall pick as the Oakland Raiders infamously selected Darius Heyward-Bey three spots prior. Most recently, San Francisco drafted A.J. Jenkins out of Illinois with the 30th overall pick.

In retrospect, Stokes was mediocre at best in his eight-year career, failing to eclipse 1,000 yards receiving in a season or double digit touchdowns. Woods was released after 2 seasons due to injuries. Jenkins simply couldn’t get on the field, or stay on his feet. Tim Kawakami noted during 49ers 2012 minicamp that “Jenkins stumbled a couple times, dropped one ball that I saw, and never seemed to explode past or separate from the DB covering him.” This observation would come to summarize Jenkins’ stint as a 49er.

This past Sunday exemplified why Crabtree is nothing like the first-round wide receiver busts of 49ers past. Only a month after returning from a disastrous torn Achilles, Michael Crabtree caught eight passes for 125 yards to lead the 49ers in receiving. With increased defensive focus on Anquan Boldin, who scorched the Packers in Week 1 for 208 yards and a touchdown, Crabtree encountered and exploited favorable matchups against Davon House and Micah Hyde. Although Michael Crabtree grew up in Texas, the intimidating subzero weather seemed to have little influence as Crabtree was able to elude defenders with ease.

While the volume of Crabtree’s production was impressive, the timeliness of his receptions was more significant. Crabtree caught several third down conversions in addition to a 31-yard catch on 4th-and-6 which led to the first points of the game for San Francisco. Whenever Colin Kaepernick scrambled and needed a receiver to improvise and get open, Michael Crabtree answered the call.

As all 49ers fans know, Michael Crabtree’s career as a San Francisco 49er has been far from smooth sailing. Its hard to forget Crabtree’s controversial contract holdout that lasted throughout the first four games of the 2009 regular season and somehow involved Deion Sanders and the New York Jets. Frustration amongst fans cultivated as a team that had not reached the postseason in over six seasons was unable to sign their promising first round draft pick. Though Crabtree’s first career game finally came in Week 7 against the Texans in which he accumulated 56 yards, the resentment of the former Red Raider resonated.

As a consequence of a dysfunctional organization and suspect quarterback play, Crabtree’s first three seasons were relatively quiet although his receiving yards increased each year.

However, everything seemed to change for the Texas Tech alum after QB Alex Smith was concussed in Week 10 of the 2012 season against the St. Louis Rams. Crabtree, who had previously averaged around 53.3 yards/game in his career, began to emerge as an elite and dependable weapon with the corresponding ascent of Colin Kaepernick. In Kaepernick’s 10 starts during the 2012 season, Crabtree amassed 100 receiving yards in a game five times. Crabtree had only accomplished such a feat four times with Alex Smith from 2009 until Week 8 of the 2012 season.

In 17 games with Kaepernick at the helm, Crabtree has averaged around 80 yards per game and has totaled nine touchdowns in that same span. Crabtree’s 2012 postseason was spectacular as he and Kap connected for 285 yards and 3 touchdowns … and nearly a fourth in the Super Bowl.

San Francisco has gone 6-0 since Crabtree returned on December 1st, including a momentous home victory against the formidable Seattle Seahawks and a road playoff victory against the Green Bay Packers. Many 49ers fans, including myself, can’t help but wonder how a healthy Crabtree at the start of 2013 would have impacted the season. Nevertheless, the 49ers have seemingly caught fire at the perfect time heading into Sunday’s Divisional round matchup against the Carolina Panthers who beat the Niners sans Crabtree 10-9 in Week 10. This upcoming game will clearly be nothing like Week 10 as the 49ers are a completely different beast with #15 on the field.