This should be a very uncomfortable offseason for Michael Crabtree as the 49ers have signed free-agent receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham and drafted A.J. Jenkins out of Illinois in the first round. The message is clear: Quit whining and start playing or you’ll be on the bench.
Crabtree has been a problem ever since he was drafted by the 49ers in 2009. He sulked and refused to sign until five games had been played because he thought he should have been drafted earlier and received the contract he would have gotten if he had. Finally, the 49ers offered another year on his contract, which helped them, not him.
NFL contracts are all basically one-year contracts with a club option for each succeeding year. That’s why agents negotiate large signing bonuses because that’s real money in the player’s hands. The fact that Crabtree thought this was a concession from the 49ers was our first indication that he’s not very smart.
Since then, there have been other problems. Some of them have been physical, which is not Crabtree’s fault. But there have been many times when he’s run the wrong patterns, which makes the quarterback look bad. To Alex Smith’s credit, he has never blamed Crabtree, but he can’t have much confidence in him, either.
The Crabtree problem intensified in the postseason. It wasn’t so obvious in the first game with the New Orleans Saints, which the 49ers won with two long touchdown drives in the final four minutes. Vernon Davis made some big catches and Smith bootlegged for 29 yards for the second touchdown.
In the championship game, though, the New York Giants double- and even triple-covered Davis in the second half, knowing he was Smith’s only reliable receiver. That should have left openings for Crabtree, but he couldn’t get open. He had only five catches for 28 yards in the two postseason games combined.
After the championship game, he complained that Smith didn’t give him a chance to “make plays,” by which he meant that the QB should have thrown the ball up for grabs and hoped that Crabtree caught it. That’s the very opposite of what coach Jim Harbaugh wants because that kind of pass is often intercepted.
Jenkins appears to be the polar opposite to Crabtree. He’s intelligent, on the Big Ten Conference’s All-Academic team. He’s a very hard worker, according to his former coach, Ron Zook. He’s also got breakaway speed, which Crabtree lacks, and has the ability to either catch a ball behind defenders or catch a shorter pass and take it the distance — which sounds a lot like John Taylor.
It seems that Jenkins and Moss will provide deep-ball threats, along with Davis. Manningham, who has made big catches in the Super Bowl and against the Niners in that NFC Championship Game, is more of a possession receiver. And the Niners will be able to use Davis and Delanie Walker, injured late last season, in two-tight end sets.
There’s still a spot for Crabtree, if he works diligently on his routes, so Smith can rely on him. But, that means checking his attitude at the locker room door — unless he relishes watching from the bench.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.