The 49ers have acknowledged they need to upgrade their receiving corps this offseason, and are expected to dip into free agency, the draft – or both – to do it.
At this point, the team has just two wide receivers under contract, starter Michael Crabtree and Kyle Williams.
Crabtree, who just completed his third season in the league after being a first-round pick out of Texas Tech in 2009, still hasn’t put up the monster numbers that many would expect from a player who was the 10th overall selection, a consensus All-American and what one writer dubbed a “pass-catching machine” in college.
After three years in the NFL, he has yet to have a 1,000-yard receiving season and he’s scored just 12 touchdowns.
But some around the 49ers believe 2011 was a significant year for Crabtree’s progress.
Finally playing in a solid offensive system under new coach Jim Harbaugh and with a revitalized quarterback in Alex Smith, Crabtree played 15 games, had 72 catches for 874 yards (a 12.1-yards-per-catch average) and four TDs.
It marked the third straight season that his catch and yardage totals have increased. As a rookie in 2009 he had 48 catches for 625 yards; in 2010, he had 55 for 741.
Cornerback Carlos Rogers, who was selected to the Pro Bowl in his first season with the 49ers in 2011, goes against Crabtree in practice and sees his performance on game days, and believes Crabtree could be ready for a breakout.
“The guy has got unbelievable hands and a great skill set,” Rogers recently said on SiriusXM NFL Radio, reported Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group. “He’s going to be an unbelievable player. At the same time, we need another receiver to complement him.”
Before last season, the 49ers signed free-agent Braylon Edwards, who was going to be that guy. Edwards, upon signing with San Francisco, even boasted that the 49ers would now have a set of No. 1 receivers with Crabtree and himself. That, however, didn’t quite work out.
But General Manager Trent Baalke also has acknowledged that he was pleased with Crabtree’s progress in 2011, even with a tender foot that sometimes held him back.
“He did a nice job,” Baalke told Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group last month, in reference to Crabtree. “He still wasn’t able to practice every day or take every rep because of the foot. Hopefully this offseason we can get that thing rectified once and for all and he can start being an everyday performer for us.”
Crabtree certainly had some memorable games in 2011, when he made a huge impact and looked like a No. 1 pick.
In a 25-19 win over the Lions in Michigan, he caught nine balls; in a 23-7 victory over the Cardinals in November, he had a season-high 120 yards on seven catches; and in the regular-season finale, a 34-27 win over St. Louis, he had eight catches for 86 yards and two TDs.
In the postseason, however, Crabtree’s production was spotty, with several drops against the Saints – to go with four catches and a TD -- and only one catch for 3 yards against the Giants.
Baalke told reporters after the season that “Michael works hard” and he’s happy with the improvements the wideout has made.
“I like the growth he had in a new system,” Baalke said. “(I) like the chemistry he and Alex seem to develop through the course of the year. Whether he can define himself as a true No. 1 in the National Football League or not remains to be seen. But (I’m) certainly happy with the progress he made.”
It will be interesting to see if Crabtree can continue on the upward cycle in 2012, with another year in Harbaugh’s system and a deeper corps of effective receivers on the field. The Niners seem to be betting that Crabtree’s best is still yet to come.