San Francisco 49ers: Who Steps Up After Michael Crabtree’s Injury?


Jan 20, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree (15) is tackled by Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson (23) during the second quarter of the NFC Championship game at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The emergence of Michael Crabtree was one of my favorite stories last year of the San Francisco 49ers. It went hand in hand with another story line that I was pleased with, Colin Kaepernick. The two where able to become a force to be reckoned with.

Unfortunately, Kaepernick will lose his favorite target, the one that he targeted twice as many times as anyone else on the roster.

Kaepernick spoke about this to the media:

"Crabtree is a great player, he’s done a lot for this team. We need someone to step up. We have a lot of talent out here, a lot of great players. It’s just that who’s going to step up and fill that role now. Crabtree got open, that’s what you want from your receiver."

There are some statistics that point to this being a major blow to Kaepernick. His completion percentage to Crabtree was 68.5% and he averaged 9.8 yards per attempt. His completion percentage to the rest of his receivers was 58.4% and averaged 8.2 yards per attempt. His QB rating when throwing to Crabtree was 139.7 in the playoffs. Crabtree took off when Kaepernick took over, totaling 41 receptions, 595 yards and five touchdowns.

Someone will need to fill the void, but the loss of Crabtree is not a dooming one for the 49ers. Trading for Anquan Boldin now becomes a very significant deal, as Boldin and Crabtree are very similar types of receivers. Kaepernick will be able to go to Boldin just the same as he went to Crabtree in clutch situations whether it be on third down or in the red zone.

One of the things that I liked most about Crabtree was the way he would catch a five yard pass on 3rd & 12 and break a tackle, then run for another few yards to get the first down. Boldin showed himself to be the same kind of clutch receiver in the playoffs. He will need to carry that momentum into the regular season with his new team.

Jim Harbaugh fully left the door open for Crabtree to return this season. He also spoke about the young players that are faced with this golden opportunity.

"Crabtree’s surgery was successful. His Achilles was completely torn and repaired. We expect him back this year. He said he has no choice but to be back. It’s a setback but Michael is young and strong. There are some young receivers on our team that will emerge and I am excited to see them compete. Competition will create it. Someone will emerge because they have to."

One of those players is Ricardo Lockette. Harbaugh has raved about him this off season. Lockette understands what is at stake.

"We are not taking this lightly, replacing Crab. We are hopefully going to replace him and keep it warm until he gets back. Crab was an all around receiver. We are planning for whatever coach wants us to do and will do it to the best of our capability."

Lockette considered himself more of an outside receiver, X or Z. He is pleased with where he is and working to get better.

"Working with Colin is, the way he explains things and breaks it down, it makes me a different receiver. He makes it as simple as possible. It’s night and day. I feel a whole lot further than where I first came in. Learning with Kaepernick is 24/7 and we just make it fun for each other."

Lockette is a former Division II track champion in the 200 meter dash. Up to this point, he has been a pretty raw receiver. The good thing with him is that he has the ability to stretch the field, something that the 49ers need. His contribution would come primarily on the outside, especially the X position. Lockette would be a good option that will allow Kyle Williams to come in and play the slot with Boldin at the Z or vice versa.

Another option at the outside spot is A.J. Jenkins. He had a rough year in 2012 but he has put in a lot of work during the off season in Atlanta.

"Me, Kap and Lockette were real focused down there. I have been working to put on some pounds and gain some weight so I can go across the middle. Learning the playbook has given me the confidence to got out and know what I am doing. I think I have added some muscle. I weigh about 196 but I am working to get to 200. My rookie season was very humbling. It teaches you a lot about the game watching from the sideline and learning from different players. I am learning everything that I can. I will even play special teams. Anquan Boldin and I come out and work every day after football school. We work on route running."

July 28, 2012; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers wide receiver A.J. Jenkins (17) during training camp at the 49ers practice facility. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

The key thing with Jenkins was learning the playbook. That was the main thing that limited him last year. The 2013 season is a huge opportunity for him. He was a playmaker at Illinois that generated a lot of yards after the catch. If he really was able to digest the playbook, he will be able to play at full speed.

Patrick Willis added his thoughts about the task that they have in front of them.

“It’s an opportunity for someone else to step up and fill those shoes,” he said. “They’re huge shoes to fill but someone will have to step up. It’s going to big that those guys learn and learn fast.”

There are some young receivers that are primed to step up and collectively fill in for Crabtree. Another way to ease the loss is to use more and more 12 personnel. Vance McDonald will be called upon to be a weapon. He played a lot of slot receiver at Rice University. The 49ers will need to game plan ways to get the ball to Vernon Davis also. Expect Davis’ targets to go up. Davis is a match up nightmare that will attract most of the opposing teams coverage. He will need to step up and be reliable target for Kaepernick especially when the opposing defense drops a safety down into the box to defend the read option offense.

Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham will both be back from injury by training camp. Both of these receivers are able to catch short passes and turn them into big gains. Williams is a very sudden player that is good in space. Manningham will make plays outside and be a consistent option for Kaepernick. He was especially dangerous on bubble screens this past year.

Above all else, Harbaugh and Greg Roman will need to devise ways to utilize the various weapons on their roster. Look for them to rely heavily on Frank Gore, LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter to lead the rushing attack. They will also get the ball on screens and others routes out of the backfield.

The injury to Crabtree will hurt the 49ers but they have the weapons and schemes to work around it. Fortunately, this injury happened so early. This will give them time to install some plays that will feature other players. The timing will also give Crabtree time to come back this season which is already expected at this point. So, when all is said and done, the 2013 49ers will still challenge for the Super Bowl.