Where he fits in: Michael Crabtree

Make room for Michael Crabtree. The 49ers might now have the best talent and depth at wide receiver that the team has enjoyed since the beginning of this century, but some of that talent and depth will be moving on over at the position for the team's new No. 1 draft pick, who will be expected to come in and play and make an impact on San Francisco's offense immediately.

General manager Scot McCloughan made it clear late Saturday afternoon when SFI asked him where Crabtree fits in with the here-and-now of the 2009 season.

"I see him playing," McCloughan quickly responded. "I see him competing for a job, playing time right away. But it's not going to be handed to him. He has to prove he deserves it. The other guys are here working and working hard. But I think he'll step up to the challenge and prove to us that we made the right pick."

The talented newcomer won't be challenging or proving anything to the 49ers right away.

A stress fracture in his left foot that bothered Crabtree last season at Texas Tech was discovered during tests at the NFL Combine in February, and he was forced to undergo surgery that scuttled much of his pre-draft workout schedule and perhaps allowed him to fall in the draft to the 49ers.

The Niners plan to limit Crabtree to walk-throughs next weekend at their post-draft minicamp, and McCloughan said, "He probably won't be 100 percent until training camp," at the end of July.

But Crabtree said on Saturday that he already is running, and when training camp does roll around, he'll be in the running for a starting position, most likely at split end, where he'll be challenging 2008 rookie surprise Josh Morgan for the lead role.

With formidable size at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Crabtree has the strength to beat press coverage on the NFL edges and get open quickly off the line, which will make him a fine fit at split end for the 49ers, though he's the kind of receiver who can play anywhere at the position and could also play in the slot.

Crabtree was moved around everywhere during his two seasons in a spread offense at Texas Tech, where he was a dominant playmaker and a two-time winner of the Biletnikoff Award, given annually to the nation's top college receiver.

The Niners would like to find Crabtree a home at split end, where he'll be competing for playing time this year with Morgan and 2007 third-round pick Jason Hill.

Newcomer free agent Brandon Jones – whom the 49ers signed to a five-year, $16.6 million deal in March – will be paired with Isaac Bruce on the other side at flanker, with Jones in the mix with Hill and Arnaz Battle for the slot role when the 49ers go to three-receiver sets. Crabtree also could be in that mix, but the 49ers obviously are grooming him for a lead role as soon as possible, and they won't hesitate to put him in it as soon as he proves worthy, which he may already be.

The addition of Crabtree will create something of a logjam at receiver, where Bruce – one of the NFL's all-time leading receivers and great players at the position – still is holding down a starting role and rising young talent such as Jones, Morgan, Hill and Dominique Zeigler are eager to get on the field and Battle also figures to have to fit in somewhere.

But it's a good problem to have, and coach Mike Singletary embraces the potential impact Crabtree will have on the team's offense in general and its receiver corps in particular.

"We'll figure it out," Singletary said. "I think it's one of those scenarios where we've got a playmaker. The biggest thing is, we're not just going to put him out there and say, ‘Hey, you're the X, the Z, whatever it is.' He's going to have to earn his way on. But the most important thing is we know we have a playmaker and we're excited about having that opportunity on our football team."

Wherever Crabtree fits, he immediately makes the 49ers better at receiver, giving the team front-line talent that can compete and produce at the NFL level, something you couldn't say very often about San Francisco's receivers corps since 2003 starters Terrell Owens and Tai Streets left the team after that season.

"We got the best receiver in the draft, hands down," McCloughan said. "Isaac's getting older. It takes more than two or three (receivers), that's for sure. He's a rookie, and he's going to come in here and there's going to be a learning curve for sure. But I really like the pick. I'm very excited to have him in this organization. The value of the player that I think that he is, I think that he'll earn (playing time) and earn it pretty quick. We expect him to produce and we do expect him to help us this year."

SFI'S 2009 PROJECTION: We see Crabtree as a player who is simply going to be too good for the 49ers to keep off the field once he gets comfortable with his NFL surroundings and the different tempo of the pro game. Rookie receivers develop at different rates, and Crabtree is coming out of college after his sophomore season after playing just two years. But he was a dominant performer during those two seasons and is the complete package at the position. We expect him to earn playing time early on pure talent alone and to be pushing for a starting position by the time the season begins, if he hasn't already nailed down that role by then. The 49ers need more playmakers to make their offense click at a higher level, and Crabtree already could be one of the top playmakers on the roster the day he became a part of it. The 49ers got one of the very best players in the draft way down at the No. 10 slot, and Crabtree will show everybody during his rookie season why he comes to the 49ers with that kind of recognition.


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