Since his rookie season for the 49ers in 2009, Michael Crabtree has steadily improved.
Now, coming after a 2011 season in which he caught a career-high 72 passes, the former Texas Tech star – who was hampered at the start of training camp by a calf strain – says he feels fitter and faster than ever.
Yet Crabtree still hasn’t completely fulfilled the expectations of the 49ers or their fans since he was taken with the 10th overall pick of the 2009 NFL Draft.
At Texas Tech, he was a two-time consensus All-America pick and twice won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best receiver, once totaling 134 catches for 1,962 yards and 22 TDs.
Since coming to the 49ers, however, he has suffered a series of nagging injuries and had catch totals of 48, 55 and 72 and just a total of 12 touchdowns.
Last season, he caught only five passes in two playoff games and was criticized during the regular season by former 49ers great Jerry Rice, who told reporters he thought Crabtree was perhaps 10 to 15 pounds overweight and was having trouble separating from defensive backs.
Now, with a new season approaching, Crabtree continues to have high expectations placed upon him. Head coach Jim Harbaugh recently said he believes Crabtree has the best hands he’s ever seen on a wide receiver; Niners cornerback Carlos Rogers now says Crabtree “looks a lot faster.”
So, does this mean Crabtree is about ready to have a breakout season and step into the NFL’s elite circle of wideouts?
Crabtree told the media this week that he’s fitter after a rigorous offseason conditioning program and excited about being a part of a 49ers offense and deeper receiving corps that has added Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins.
He hasn’t made any bold predictions about his performance in 2012, but others are saying Crabtree looks better than ever.
“He was playing last year on a bad wheel and battled his way through it,” offensive coodinator Greg Roman told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group. “He’s much healthier this year. He certainly appears a lot quicker and faster.”
Rogers, too, told Inman that Crabtree looks faster and is smarter, understanding more and more what he needs to do to get open.
One thing Crabtree has going for him is his day-to-day battle with Pro Bowl corner Rogers in practice. Crabtree has told reporters that he and Roger have an ongoing scorecard of their battles in camp against one another.
“It’s a good competition, a friendly competition,” Crabtree said. “We’re really making each other better.”
Now, with more receivers around him, Crabtree talks about playing his role in the offense. The fact the 49ers brought in Moss and Manningham and used their top pick on Jenkins is not an indictment of him, he says, but a recognition that the team needs more playmakers.
“It’s a team,” he said Wednesday to reporters. “We added running backs, receivers, a quarterback. … It’s just how the game goes. I don’t think one receiver is enough. You don’t know what will happen in a season. Guys will go down. For instance, last year we had four or five guys at the beginning. At the end of the season, it was just me, Brett Swain and my guy, Joe Hastings. You need that depth at receiver.”