Colin Kaepernick

What’s up with Michael Crabtree?

Michael Crabtree 49ers

Generally headlines in the form of a question are worded that way to entice the reader. But I’m at a loss. I don’t know why Michael Crabtree’s numbers are roughly the same as Stevie Johnson’s in over twice the snaps. Yes, that’s true. Crabtree has 322 receiving yards and three touchdowns while playing 361 snaps (per Pro Football Focus). Johnson has 315 yards and three touchdowns in 153 snaps.

“You can expect to see the old Crab,” said Anquan Boldin before the season. Instead, we’re seeing a Crabtree who is tied for third among wide receivers in drops with five (including two in Denver), is on pace for just 736 receiving yards, and has the lowest average yards per catch (10.1) of his career. What gives? There are a few possibilities.

1. He’s injured

Crabtree had his worst game of the season in Week 5 against the Chiefs: one catch for 16 yards. He was listed on the injury report during the week of practice leading up to that game due to a problem with his foot. But then he ran a sensational route a week later in St. Louis that led to a 32-yard touchdown.

Crabtree missed some practices during training camp for various reasons, although none of his ailments were considered serious at the time. Achilles tears aren’t known to heal quickly, and the foot issue is a bit of a red flag — however, if you’re on the field and getting that many snaps, you’re considered 100% in the NFL. Vernon Davis hasn’t been the same player since he got hurt during that loss to the Bears, but nobody’s in a mood to cut him any slack.

2. Too many weapons

Crabtree has been targeted 47 times, second on the team behind Boldin’s 51. Colin Kaepernick has targeted Johnson 31 times. Brandon Lloyd has 21 targets and Kaepernick seems to trust him a little more each week. The environment is far different from Crabtree’s best season, 2012, when the team’s No. 2 and 3 receivers were Randy Moss and Mario Manningham. Or last year, when a heavier, barely healed Crabtree was still a far better No. 2 wideout than anyone else on the roster.

3. It’s a long season

As an offense, the 49ers are kind of feeling their way through this part of the season. From week to week it’s like they can’t decide whether they’re a running team or a passing team, or which running back or receivers have the most exploitable matchups. They don’t have to worry about Kaepernick and Crabtree building up chemistry, so perhaps Crabtree’s breakout game is yet to come. We know he’s highly motivated as an impending free agent … and for those who think the 49ers are diabolical enough to depress his value by keeping him under wraps, I’m going to put the kibosh on that line of thinking right now (if it even exists). If the 49ers wanted to keep Crabtree down, they wouldn’t give him over 50 snaps and almost seven targets per game.

However, Crabtree might start getting fewer chances after the bye. Why? Check out this little factoid: at +7.8, Johnson is the NFL’s No. 4 receiver according to PFF’s grading system (behind Jordy Nelson at +11.8, Antonio Brown at +9.8 and T.Y. Hilton’s +9.5 mark). Johnson is due for a raise from $3,925,000 in 2014 to just over $6 million in 2015 and 2016 if he isn’t cut before June 1 either year. That’s a decent bump in pay, but it looks like it might be worth it based on how productive he’s been without a lot of playing time.

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