The San Francisco 49ers experienced the worst nightmare of every team in the National Football League Wednesday, as wide receiver Michael Crabtree tore his achilles after running a routine passing route during the teams voluntary organized team activities.
According to the Bleacher Report, Crabtree was hurt during a 7-0n-7 passing drill, citing a quote from 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh who said, “He was coming in motion, just planted and started a route and felt like somebody kicked him in Achilles.”
At this point, the only good news about the injury is that because it happened so early in the offseason, Harbaugh and the 49ers have said that the injury should not cost Crabtree the entire 2013 season. Yet, the expected recovery time is estimated at about six months, so he will be missing significant game time.
The injury is particularly disappointing because Crabtree was just starting to come into his own as a top-flight wide receiver. The 49ers drafted him with the ninth overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft and after not quite living up to expectations during his first three seasons, the former Texas Tech product had a breakout season in 2012, catching a career-high 85 passes for 1,105 yards and scoring nine touchdowns.
The injury is even more disappointing from a 49ers perspective because Crabtree and third-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick had started to form a dynamic connection. In fact, Crabtree’s breakout performance in 2012 is largely due to Kaepernick.
In the last 10 games of the season (including playoffs) after the young gunslinger took over for the injured Alex Smith, Crabtree went off, catching 61 passes for 880 yards and scoring nine touchdowns. If we prorate those numbers over the course of a 16-game season, it equals 97 receptions for over 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns — that is elite production, which is why Crabtree’s fantasy value had never been higher than it was this offseason.
Crabtree, who finished 15th among wide receivers in point-per-reception formats in 2012, was ranked 16th in our most recent post-NFL draft PPR Fantasy Football Wide Receivers rankings for 2013. Yet the injury certainly knocks him off that pedestal. However, the key question for fantasy owners is not how the injury affects Crabtree’s value going forward — that is self-explanatory but instead how the injury impacts the value of Kaepernick and the rest of the 49ers.
For starters, the injury to Crabtree definitely hurts Kaepernick, who ranked sixth in our recent post-NFL Draft quarterback rankings. The third-year signal caller from Nevada, threw 14 touchdown passes in his ten games as a starter — 10 of which went to Crabtree. So it’s easy to see why the quarterback’s value is going to take a bit of a hit. At this point, I still believe he is a top-10 quarterback in large part because of his running ability but losing a top wide out is never easy to overcome.
While Kaepernick’s fantasy value is hurt by the injury, it should have a positive impact on the fantasy value of tight end Vernon Davis, as well as wide receivers Anquan Boldin, A.J. Jenkins, Quinton Patton and Mario Manningham, who recovering from a torn ACL.
The biggest beneficiary though should be Davis, who remarkably finished 20th last season in fantasy points among tight ends in PPR leagues. Yet, Tthe biggest reason for Davis’ shocking lack of productivity last season was simply a lack of opportunities. Inexplicably, the 49ers only threw the ball to Davis 61 times last season, an average of fewer than four times a game.
That simply cannot happen with a player as talented as Davis and in my opinion the biggest flaw of Harbaugh as head coach has been his under utilization of Davis, who is as talented a tight end as there is in the NFL.
The fact that Davis was fairly productive with the targets he received makes the situation even more of a head-scratcher.
Despite being limited to just 61 targets (29th among tight ends), the former Maryland product still caught 41 passes (a 67 percent catch rate) for 548 yards and five touchdowns. Therefore, Davis averaged an impressive 8.9 yards per target, scored a touchdown once every 12 targets and averaged more than two fantasy points per target, which ranked second among tight ends behind Rob Gronkowski’s 2.54 fantasy points per target average.
Now with Crabtree out of the picture likely at least until the middle of the season, it’s time for Harbaugh and the 49ers to feed the beast (Davis). It’s the only way the passing game is going to be anywhere near as effective as it was down the stretch last year. That’s because without Crabtree, the Niners receiving core consists of Boldin, a possession guy at this stage of his career, an unproven second-year man in Jenkins, a rookie in Patton and Manningham, who is coming off a major injury — not exactly a stellar group.
That’s why Harbaugh and the 49ers must make a more concentrated effort on getting the ball to Davis, who could easily be a top-5 fantasy tight end if he was targeted as much as the Gronkowski’s and Jimmy Graham’s of the world.
So while there is plenty that needs to be sorted out among the 49ers wide receivers, one thing fantasy owners should take away from the Crabtree injury is the fact that it could setup Davis for a dominant fantasy season in 2013. As long as Harbaugh and the 49ers coaching staff gets out of their own way and let their most talented pass-catcher do what he does best, his value should skyrocket.