With the 10th pick of the 2009 NFL Draft, the 49ers selected Texas Tech star wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
In the years since, that choice hasn’t always looked so good.
In their hunt for an impact wide receiver in that draft, the 49ers passed up Missouri’s Jeremy Maclin (Eagles, taken 19th), Florida’s Percy Harvin (Vikings, No. 22), North Carolina’s Hakeem Nicks (Giants, No. 29) and Rutgers’ Kenny Britt (Titans, No. 30).
For a wide receiver taken so high – and who posted such astonishing numbers in college – Crabtree didn’t make the immediate splash many had expected.
Yet each year his production has improved and in 2012 Crabtree has become an elite target for the 49ers.
And, since Colin Kaepernick took over from Alex Smith as the starting quarterback midway through this season, Crabtree seems to have developed a rapport with the second-year QB that has turned him into an even bigger threat.
In his rookie year of 2009, Crabtree had 48 catches for 625 yards. In 2010, the numbers were 55 and 741; in 2011, 72 and 874; and this season, 85 catches and 1,105 yards with a career-high nine TD catches. Crabtree becomes the team’s first 1,000-yard receiver in nine seasons.
In the team’s final regular-season victory over the Cardinals last week, Crabtree had eight catches for a career-high 172 yards and two touchdowns and, as Steve Corkran of the Bay Area News Group noted, can now lay claim to being the best receiver of his draft class.
As the 11-4-1 49ers prepare for their first playoff game Jan. 12 against an opponent to be determined this wild-card weekend, San Francisco knows it now has a go-to wideout who’s playing as well as any receiver in the NFL.
“Crabtree has been unbelievable this season,” 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis told Corkran. “And that’s the way it should be. Each season, you’re supposed to get better.”
Head coach Jim Harbaugh has consistently praised Crabtree since coming to the 49ers last season, and has lauded his great hands. Now, however, Crabtree seems to have taken his game to a higer level in all phases, and Harbaugh has noted the great connection between the receiver and young quarterback.
“He did a tremendous job getting open in several different ways: beating his man at the line of scrimmage in press coverage, creating separation downfield, made the incredible one-handed catch, the run after the catch,” said Harbaugh after Crabtree’s game against the Cardinals. “Colin was putting the ball in four of those cases in the only place it could have been.”
In the final five games of the season, Crabtree had 35 catches for four TDs and three 100-yard games (and 538 yards in all).
“My dude made it happen,” Crabtree told reporters, referring to Kaepernick. “I’m just running routes and trying to make plays.”
But as the 49ers head into the playoffs, Crabtree has become one of the 49ers’ best playmakers and a receiver opponents must stop. In his fourth season, Crabtree has lived up to his billing going into the 2009 draft.
“He’s a beast, a big playmaker for us,” offensive tackle Joe Staley told Corkran. “He always comes up big.”