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Michael Crabtree: The Definition of Fantasy Football Value in 2016

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Does anyone know what to make of Michael Crabtree?  With the Raiders last year he outscored running mate Amari Cooper and only 15 receivers surpassed his fantasy total (18 in standard).  And yet he’s currently the 35th WR off the board in drafts, according to consensus ADP.  That makes him a tremendous value.  While several factors cap his 2016 upside, my prediction is that Crabtree offers fantasy owners a steady week-to-week WR2, especially in PPR, and he should be a great matchup play in DFS.

To help us get a handle on who this mercurial receiver really is, and why I’ve reached these conclusions, let’s get in the way-back machine, shall we?  Seven years in, Michael Crabtree has already had a fascinating career…

Crabtree’s Start in San Francisco

As the first two-time Fred Biletnikoff Award winner, Michael Crabtree was widely regarded as the best college receiver available in the 2009 draft.  And yet this Texas Tech Red Raider was bypassed by those other Raiders, probably because he said “no comment” when asked if he wanted to don the silver and black. (Al Davis bristled at lesser signs of disrespect.)  Three picks later Crabby became the second pass-catcher off the board at 10th overall. It’s fair to call his rookie year disastrous as he was dubbed a diva after a five-game holdout and managed 4-receptions on 86-targets (a lowly 55.8 catch percentage), with just two touchdowns, on his way to a rock-bottom WR rating from Pro Football Focus. The “bust” label was being bandied about.

Then, three years later, he had seemingly turned it all around. With ascendant star Colin Kaepernick (yep, he really was just that), throwing Michael Crabtree the ball, the receiver’s game blossomed in 2012.  At the end of a solid fantasy season, his only 1000-yard campaign to date, he got within a whisker of a Super Bowl win (and potentially MVP honors) as he registered five catches for 109 yards and a touchdown in a 34-31 loss to the Ravens in the “Harbowl.”  Three times, Kaepernick couldn’t connect with Crabtree for a game-winning score and the Niners turned the ball over on downs.

The agony and the ecstasy of Michael Crabtree’s career continued as he tore his Achilles tendon in minicamp and missed all but five regular season games.  This could have been the death knell for his career but the receiver rehabbed tirelessly and returned ahead of schedule to help San Francisco reach another NFC Championship Game.  After averaging 51 yards in his first three games back, he posted 100-yard performances in two out of the next three contests. For the second year in a row the season ended on a last-gasp toss to Crabtree as Colin Kaepernick’s game-ending, tipped-ball interception transferred the glory to the wideout’s future teammate (and eventual Super Bowl MVP) Malcolm Smith.

Never a high-yards-per-catch, take-the-top-off-the-defense burner, Michael Crabtree logged a 16-game 2014 campaign that saw him post a career-low yards-per-catch (10.3) with 68-receptions on 108-targets (a 62.9 catch percentage), and just four touchdowns.  The bloom was off the Colin Kaepernick rose by this time, but some observers blamed Crabtree’s Achilles tear for his struggles.

Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception revealed, however, that Michael Crabtree was still above average at getting open against all kinds of coverage, thanks to his crafty route-running.  He was particularly effective on curls, slants and flat routes.  Subsequent seasons tell us that defenses were simply catching up with Colin Kaepernick, a limited, “see it, throw it” quarterback whom, Crabtree let slip in 2016, stopped studying game-film on his opponents.  Speaking of game-film, Kaepernick has produced plenty in the last two years, and most of it is unwatchable.

Is the torn Achilles still a factor for Michael Crabtree?  Despite a speedy recovery and no signs of tentativeness after his return, a player who entered the league with at-best 4.59 speed (he skipped the Combine) may have lost a gear.  Harmon’s study found that Crabtree managed only a 34-percent success rate on nine routes (the prototypical vertical route), which is well below average.  His already limited vertical ability is entirely gone, it seems.

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Michael Crabtree Advanced Metrics Profile

Crabtree Joins the Raiders

In 2015 the former top-10 overall pick had to sign a one-year prove-it deal with the Oakland Raiders.  Sometimes changing teams is an opportunity for players to redefine themselves, and from the moment Michael Crabtree donned the silver and black jersey he once shunned, the pass-catcher gave no one reason to question his maturity or commitment to his craft.  He put in extra reps to build chemistry with Carr and impressed in camp.

When the bullets were live, a suddenly resurgent Michael Crabtree shone in the Raiders offense, and not at the expense of an acclimating rookie in Amari Cooper. After a poor start in Oakland’s Week 1 blowout loss to the Bengals, both receivers got it going in a big way.  Crabtree earned a four-year, midseason contract extension, which is quite unusual.

His play promptly fell off.  After averaging 73.8-yards through the first 8 games, he managed only 41.3-yards per game the rest of the way and his yards per reception dipped from 12.5 to 8.7, with a pair of 4-for-19 games.  It still added up to career highs in receptions and touchdowns (a team-leading nine) with a yardage total that fell just short of his best season in San Francisco.

Crabtree’s 2016 Outlook

So which Michael Crabtree should we expect this season?  The receiver who averages five or six catches and 70 yards per game, scoring eight or nine touchdowns on the year, or someone who musters 40 yards per game and rarely finds the end zone?

To find answers, the first thing to do is figure out what happened in the second half of 2015 and ascertain if history is likely to repeat itself.

The Raiders’ offense as a whole was significantly less potent in the second half of the year, when Amari Cooper was hobbled by a foot injury.  The team was undone by miscues, including a bevy of drops by Cooper and several field-flipping home interceptions for Carr.  The team gave up 84-points off turnovers.  Latavius Murray’s yards per carry plunged from 4.7 in the first 9 games to 3.2 down the stretch, and he was particularly ineffective in the fourth quarter of games.  It’s not as though Crabtree’s play fell off and production went elsewhere; the offense sputtered and everyone’s numbers suffered.

There is reason to expect the Raiders’ offense to take another step forward in 2016.  Personally, I was dead wrong about Derek Carr the college prospect.  He’s the real thing, though Michael Crabtree’s comparison of the QB to Brett Favre is a bit odd, and premature.

The addition of former Ravens guard Kelechi Osemele solidifies a very promising line and, should Latavius Murray be inefficient again, rookie DeAndre Washington is a talented understudy waiting in the wings.  The team should move the chains more readily than in the second half of last year and score more touchdowns.

Is it possible that second-year pass-catchers Clive Walford and Seth Roberts surpass Michael Crabtree, relegating him to a token starter?  Roberts’ 15 yards per catch led the team and he was as clutch as he was explosive.  Roberts will ably hold down the slot and should continue to develop, but with a different skill set he shouldn’t siphon too many targets from Crabtree, an outside receiver.

Was Michael Crabtree only playing nice (and playing well) until he landed a bigger contract?  Did he immediately dog it once the ink dried on his new pact?  Will he sulk if Amari Cooper and Seth Roberts see too many targets, the way he did in his final year in San Francisco?  Time will tell, but the culture in Jim Harbaugh’s locker room was, by all accounts, pretty toxic by the end.  That’s not the case in Oakland.

Okay, so will the offense contract alongside a defense that is edging into elite territory?  Jack Del Rio is not Mike Martz, to say the least.  The team is unlikely to be trailing in the fourth quarter as often as they were last year, meaning that rush attempts will increase and passes will decline.  Amari Cooper is the definition of an alpha dog, so his share of the pie will only increase. Right?

I’m not worried about it.  Michael Crabtree is, at 28-years old, a route-running technician and possession receiver. He was never a lid-lifter and he certainly isn’t now.  From a fantasy perspective his best attribute may be his red-zone prowess.  Scoring touchdowns is critical to fantasy success and unless Clive Walford takes a big leap forward, Crabtree is the Raiders’ go-to guy in the painted area.  At the goal line Derek Carr targeted Crabtree eight times, Roberts three times and Cooper never.

What’s more, Crabtree can still win against NFL corners.  It will only get easier for him as Amari Cooper, a potential superstar, draws defensive attention and the other youngsters develop.  Unless another speed-sapping injury strikes, Michael Crabtree will continue to cash in on the coverage of weaker corners.

Still in his prime, as part of an ascendant offense, Crabtree should easily duplicate his 2015 numbers.  That makes him a much better value than Amari Cooper , who is being drafted more than 50 picks earlier.  There will be more ups and downs in the odyssey of Michael Crabtree, but 2016 should be dramatic in mostly good ways.