All signs point to Crabtree as starter

It doesn't take a genius to know the 49ers could use a boost coming out of their bye week for an offense ranked 29th in the NFL. And Viola! Here comes Michael Crabtree, and the smart money says the Niners are ready to make their prized rookie a starter in his debut this Sunday. "When you have a guy like that, you don't have to be a Phi Beta Kappa to figure it out," coach Mike Singletary said.

Officially speaking, the 49ers still have not figured out who will be their starting wide receiver opposite veteran Isaac Bruce for Sunday's game against the Houston Texans.

"We're not in a position to name the starter yet," Singletary said late Wednesday morning. "It will either by Josh (Morgan) or Michael Crabtree."

But forget the either-or stuff.

All signs point to Crabtree making his NFL debut as San Francisco's starting split end when the 49ers resume their schedule after sitting out last Sunday during their bye.

The 49ers are just being practical here. Crabtree is a bona fide playmaker, and he already has shown enough in the brief time he has practiced with the team that he can provide some oomph to the offense and make an impact where the Niners need it most.

In keeping with his what's-best-for-the-team philosophy, Singletary isn't about to keep a guy like that off the field, even if he missed the first 71 days of the team's 2009 program that began with the start of training camp in late July.

"If the guy can play, if he can make plays, put him on the field, give him a chance, let's see what he can do," Singletary said. "Or I could be stubborn. I could be a knucklehead and say, ‘You know what, he wasn't here, Josh is going to start or this guy's going to start and that's the way it's going to be.'"

But Singletary is no knucklehead. His eyes don't lie, and he has seen what Crabtree can do in the short amount of time he has been practicing.

"I want to be fair to the team," Singletary said. "The team comes first and the team wants to win. We're going to do all that we can to make sure we have the best 11 people on the field at all times that gives us a chance to win."

That's the reason the 49ers have moved Adam Snyder – the starter at right tackle for each of the first five games of the season – to right guard to alternate with struggling Chilo Rachal – the starter at that position the first five games – while making newcomer Tony Pashos the new starting right tackle this week.

And, while Morgan hasn't exactly struggled in San Francisco's anemic passing game – he's averaging a healthy 15.5 yards on his 13 receptions – the potential that Crabtree brings as a steady threat to opposing defenses already has become too tempting to resist.

What about all that time Crabtree missed with the team? The learning and bonding of summer camp and the preseason? The experience and development of the first stage of the regular season? Well, Crabtree was making progress on his own, Singletary said, and now he's ready to make up for lost time.

"It shows he hasn't been sitting around on the couch looking at television," Singletary said. "He's been working. When you see the young man run routes, when you see his presence on the field, what he does for the offense… It's not like I'm the only one. I'm not having to fight anybody to say, ‘Hey, you know what, what do you think? Do you think maybe he's a starter?'"

Yes, the 49ers think Crabtree is a starter. They don't want to publicly say so until later in the week, but Morgan said he already has been told by coaches to expect Crabtree to take his place in the huddle at the start of games, though Morgan could wind up playing as much as the rookie as the team rotates its wideouts and goes with three-receiver sets.

But the idea now is to see whether Crabtree can help right away rather than easing him into the lineup.

"It's a matter of a sense of urgency for him," Singletary said. "For us, Crabtree coming in the way he's come in – tremendous attitude, tremendous work ethic and doing everything that he can to get on the field – the most important thing for us is to get him out there as soon as we can as much and see what he can and cannot do.

"When you have a kid like that and he comes out and the young man works hard every day, he doesn't have to tell you what he's been doing while he wasn't here, you see it. You see it in his route running, you see it in the way he runs the route and his margin for making, running a bad route or whatever, that's not something you see very often. You tell him something one time and it's normally one time you have to tell him. It shows why we drafted him where we drafted him at the 10th slot.

"I'm excited to see what he has. It's one thing to practice, it's another thing to get in the game and play the game full speed. Going forward, it's going to be very important for us and in our best interest offensively to find out as soon as we can how much of an effect he can have and how much of a playmaker he really can be."

Nobody knows yet what Crabtree is thinking and feeling about making his mark immediately. He declined to talk with reporters Wednesday, saving that exercise for Thursday.

But quarterback Shaun Hill, who had his first session of pitch-and-catch with Crabtree just last week, said he likes the idea of getting the rookie on the field to add another dimension to an offense that ranks 24th or lower in nine statistical categories recorded by the NFL.

"I've been impressed with the things I've seen, so I'm excited to see what he can do," Hill said. "I can see that he has special talent, without a doubt. He brings a lot of playmaking ability, he brings a big target, and I've been impressed with the way he's been able to pick up everything as well."

Ideally, the presence of Crabtree in the lineup will have a trickle down effect throughout the offense – helping open things for the running game, other receivers and particularly tight end Vernon Davis, who has been the top target in San Francisco's passing game thus far.

With 22 receptions, Davis has nine more catches than any other player on the team and is on a pace for career-high totals of 70 receptions, 771 yards and 10 touchdowns.

But the presence of Crabtree could give Davis even more room to roam and more opportunities to beat defenders.

"He comes in here with a lot of hype," Davis said. "It's going to take some time, but it would be the expectations for Crabtree to open things up. He looks pretty good. I expect him to come in and help me out as well in the passing game as far as catching passes."

One thing is fairly certain: The 49ers are planning to make Crabtree a big part of their offense from the get-go, and exactly how big a part will depend on what he can do with the opportunities that are given to him.

"He wants to play and make a contribution," Singletary said. "It's exciting to see him out here, and obviously, he's a good football player. I'm excited to see how it starts and the progression. I don't think it's going to be too big for him. To me, even though he's come in late, he looks like he's ready. As far as how much he plays, I think it depends on how much success he has when it really gets right down to it. Going forward, that is something that will play itself out in a game."


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