Like many NFL WRs, Crabtree could catch on later

Will Michael Crabtree become an elite NFL wide receiver?

Next question: Do y’all remember what one of those look like?

The Niners haven’t had a wide receiver post more than 835 yards in a season since Terrell Owens had 1,102 yards in 2003. In the past seven seasons, 30 NFL teams have had at least one 1,000-yard receiver and the other, the Bears, have had a wideout post 960 yards. Here’s another way to put it: Since 2004, NFL wide receivers have produced 190 850-yard seasons, but not one has come from a Niner.

Crabtree, of course, was drafted to rectify this problem. But it hasn’t happened yet. His one-of-a-kind rookie season – no training camp, no practice, no problem – seemed to suggest a savant. But The Natural was nowhere to be found in 2010 as his much-anticipated next step went backwards. Crabtree’s receptions and yards per game dropped and he endured one miserable late-season stretch during which he had four catches for 18 yards in 11 quarters.

During Crabtree’s one-catch-for-one-yard performance against Seattle in December, FOX analyst Brian Billick said he ran imprecise routes. Asked later about Billick’s analysis, then-offensive coordinator Mike Johnson didn’t disagree.

“Well that’s something that a lot of the young wide receivers have to go through, they have to go through a progression of understanding how to run routes the way true route runners run them,” Johnson said. “That’s not a knock against Crabtree, that’s just a fact of him being a young football player and still learning and developing, but I think he’s working hard at his craft.”

Crabtree isn’t alone. Besides the occasional outlier (see Moss, Randy), it often takes wide receivers — even the best ones — a few seasons to fully transition to the NFL (see White, Roddy). Consider that Crabtree has played 27 NFL games and has more catches (103) than Detroit’s Calvin Johnson (101), Green Bay’s Greg Jennings (98) and Miami’s Brandon Marshall (85) did at the same stage in their careers.

It remains to be seen if Crabtree joins the NFL’s elite. He certainly won’t make the breakthrough due to breakaway speed. But it’s worth remembering his route running and inconsistency aren’t unusual for a 23-year-old wide receiver. Below is a look at how Crabtree compares to the NFL’s top wide receivers at the 27-game stage in their careers:

1. Larry Fitzgerald, 132
2. Dwayne Bowe, 128
3. Andre Johnson, 127
4. DeSean Jackson, 106
5. Michael Crabtree, 103
6. Calvin Johnson, 101
7. Greg Jennings, 98
8. Brandon Marshall, 85
9. Reggie Wayne, 67
10. Brandon Lloyd, 51
11. Roddy White, 49

1. Andre Johnson, 1,869
2. Larry Fitzgerald, 1,779
3. Calvin Johnson, 1,727
4. Dwayne Bowe, 1,719
5. DeSean Jackson, 1,681
6. Greg Jennings, 1,552
7. Michael Crabtree, 1,366
8. Brandon Marshall, 1,223
9. Reggie Wayne, 928
10. Brandon Lloyd, 701
11. Roddy White, 669

T1. Larry Fitzgerald, 15
T1. Greg Jennings, 15
3. Calvin Johnson, 12
4. Dwayne Bowe, 11
5. Andre Johnson, 9
T6. Michael Crabtree, 8
T6. DeSean Jackson, 8
8. Brandon Lloyd, 7
9. Brandon Marshall, 6
10. Roddy White, 3
11. Reggie Wayne, 2

• A few notes about the scientific method:

* We’ve compared Crabtree to the NFL’s best wide receivers. A high bar, but he was a No. 10 overall pick. He’s supposed to join that group.

* How did you determine who are the NFL’s best wide receivers? Wow. What a thoughtful question. We’ve used this item from ESPN’s Mike Sando in which eight ESPN panelists rank the NFL’s best wideouts. If it’s good enough for Sando, it’s good enough for our humble little blog (even if we think Brandon Lloyd needs one more stellar season to join the group).

* This is not a perfect comparison, on a number of levels. DeSean Jackson, for example, had Donovan McNabb throwing him the ball at the beginning of his career; Crabtree had Alex Smith and Troy Smith (with a dash of Shaun Hill). On the other hand, Crabtree has started 26 of his first 27 career games while Roddy White only started 13 of his first 27.

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