Wide receiver Michael Crabtree came into the NFL with gaudy college stats and high expectations.
The two-time consensus All-American from Texas Tech was the 10th overall pick by the 49ers in the 2009 draft, but never became the game-breaking receiver many predicted. His numbers steadily improved – from 48 catches as a rookie to 55, 72 and a career-high 85 in 2012, when he also put up 1,105 receiving yards and scored nine touchdowns.
Then he tore an Achilles tendon and his career has yet to get back to that 2012 level. At the end of the 2014 season, the 49ers let him walk via free agency.
Now, he’s getting a new opportunity with the Oakland Raiders, after signing a one-year free-agent deal for $3 million.
For Crabtree, 2015 is a big season. If he puts up big numbers, his career will be back on track. If he can’t make a big impact, he could be in trouble. It may be hard for him to get a significant deal for 2016.
Crabtree, in fact, is one of three Raiders included in a story this week by Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com, singling out 10 AFC players who face “make or break seasons.”
Aside from Crabtree, running back Trent Richardson and cornerback DJ Hayden also are on the list. Another who could be included is offensive tackle Menelik Watson, who has yet to claim and keep a starting spot at right tackle because of injuries.
Watson, drafted along with Hayden in 2013, was considered raw but athletic when taken in the second round of that draft. But the 6-foot-5, 315-pounder has been derailed by injuries. He played just five games in 2013. In 2014, he played 12, starting nine, and showed flashes of potential. Now he goes into training camp set to battle veteran Austin Howard for the right tackle job. If he can step up and win the spot, Watson could finally be on his way. If not, he may find himself cast as a perpetual backup.
New offensive line coach Mike Tice at least is bringing a fresh outlook to the competition. He singled out Watson, upon his hiring, as a player he believes has the potential to be a good NFL player.
Rosenthal’s observations on the other three he deems to be at a crossroads:
On Crabtree: “He’s the type of player that is worth gambling on, even if he’s not the most popular player with ex-teammates. He’s only 27 years old and has shown he can play.”
On Hayden: “He was workmanlike in 600-plus snaps last season after a lost rookie campaign. This is a team that desperately needs a cornerback to step up, and Hayden is their best chance.”
On Richardson: “(He) is clearly at a career crossroads. It was a surprise that Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie handed Richarson $600,000 guaranteed to compete for the starting job in Oakland.”
How important is it for these four to break through with big seasons?
For the Raiders, Hayden and Crabtree are crucial. Big seasons by both will ensure greater success for the defense and offense. If Watson falters and Howard shines, the Raiders will be fine – for the short run (though Watson’s emergence would be terrific for the long term).
Richardson, meanwhile, is the luxury. If he fails – but Latavius Murray, Roy Helu Jr. and Michael Dyer play well – he won’t be missed. But it certainly would be a pleasant surprise for him to regain the form he had as an All-America back at Alabama. For the Raiders, it would be a bonus.