Projecting Crabtree's Impact

The league's lowest ranked passing attack will get a major boost in the coming weeks with the return of wideout Michael Crabtree. Inside we take a look at how big of an impact he will make on the offense as the 49ers head into the stretch run of the season.

A player's value is often most noticeable when he's not around.

That's been the case for the San Francisco 49ers and top wideout Michael Crabtree, who spoke to reporters Friday for just the second time since being cleared to practice with the team Nov. 5.

"It's time for me to go. I feel comfortable enough to go out there and play, go out there and see what I can do," Crabtree said.

After being elevated from the PUP list to the active roster on Tuesday, it appears Crabtree is on track to make his 2013 debut Sunday against the Rams. His return comes just over six months after suffering a complete tear of his right Achilles tendon during the team's offseason program in May.

Crabtree participated in all practices this week and said the film from those sessions was encouraging.

"That's probably what made me feel comfortable - just practicing every day and really feeling the ground with my foot," he said.

"I felt great. I felt real good. They did a good job of just putting me in there, letting me spin, letting me do my thing."

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman intimated this week that Crabtree would be eased back into the fold after his six-month absence.

Working new wideouts into the offense hasn't been anything new for San Francisco this season. No other position has seen the same level of turnover than wide receiver for second-year QB Colin Kaepernick. Gone are A.J. Jenkins, Marlon Moore, Kyle Williams and Chad Hall.

Conversely Anquan Boldin, Quinton Patton, Jon Baldwin, Mario Manningham and now Crabtree have integrated (or re-integrated) in varying degrees since the end of 2012.

So what can we expect from the offense now that the pieces are coming back together?

According to Pro Football Focus' Jeff Deeney, Kaepernick targeted Crabtree in nearly 35 percent of his passing attempts in 2012. Crabtree was also his favorite target in third-down situations, an area where the 49ers have struggled this season completing 37 percent of their chances this season.

For the season, playoffs included, Crabtree finished with 105 receptions for 1,390 yards. From Week 13 on, he was targeted 10 times per game on average and also had seven touchdowns over the final seven games.

This year, only Boldin (5) and Davis (9) have caught touchdown passes from Kaepernick, making it easier on opposing defenses to contain the second-year starter through the air.

But there's no precedent for a receiver coming back from this type of injury. The most noteworthy case of late is Ravens' linebacker Terrell Suggs, who returned just five months after surgery to repair his torn Achilles last season.

The key differences in Suggs' case were the severity of his injury and the position he plays. Suggs only suffered a partial tear to his Achilles and is asked to do entirely different things on the field than Crabtree. Given the constant evolution of medicine and rehabilitation techniques, it's hard to predict how Crabtree reacts to the physical obstacles he's dealt with on his road back. It's also important to keep in mind his two bouts with broken bones in his feet since coming into the league in 2009.

Manningham returned to game action after practicing for three weeks before making his season debut Nov. 10 against the Panthers. He played 45 of the team's 57 snaps (79 percent). He was targeted six times and finished with three catches for 30 yards.

It's unlikely that game was a proper gauge for how much Crabtree will play Sunday, however. The 49ers' group of pass catchers was hit with injuries after Davis and Garrett Celek left the game, forcing San Francisco to use multi-receiver sets more than they would have liked.

The 49ers beat the Rams in Week 4 with a steady diet of the running game when they accumulated 219 yards en route to their 35-11 win. St. Louis' defense has improved dramatically in that area recently, allowing 108 yards on the ground combined over their last two games.

With a pivotal game against Seattle on the horizon next week, the 49ers will want to get Crabtree enough to reps to build a rhythm and rapport with Kaepernick while not overextending him physically.

While Manningham was forced to play 45 snaps in his first game back, expect Crabtree to be treated more like Aldon Smith when he returned from his leave of absence. Smith played in just 12 snaps in his first game back against Carolina before getting 44 and 45 over the next two weeks.

Whether or not Crabtree can regain his 2012 form physically is yet to be seen. But he quickly became one of the league's better young pass catchers as the team's primary receiving threat.

With Boldin and a healthy Manningham alongside, Crabtree's numbers might not pop like they did last year. But his addition makes the receiving corps the deepest it has been since Jim Harbaugh became coach.

That depth on the outside should force defenses to play the 49ers' running game more honestly with fewer eight and nine-man fronts, which sets up everything else through the air.

San Francisco lost to the Panthers and Saints by four points combined. Should the offense open up, the 49ers could be a dangerous team come playoff time.

*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*


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