When the 2013 season came to a close, the 49ers made it known they wanted to bring veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin back for 2014 and get a deep-threat receiver in the draft.
So far, they’ve re-signed Boldin, for Goal No. 1. And in the draft that begins May 8, they’ll address Goal No. 2.
But there’s also a third necessity, and that’s deciding what to do about Michael Crabtree.
Crabtree, the team’s No. 1 wideout, is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
He’s due to make $3.5 million this year, a good value for the 49ers. After all, Crabtree – a first-round pick in 2009 out of Texas Tech – has steadily improved to become one of the NFL’s best possession receivers.
As a rookie he had 48 catches in 2009, then improved to 55 in 2010, 72 in 2011 and 85 in 2012. Though an Achilles injury robbed him of most of 2013, he came back for five regular-season games to catch 19 passes, then had 15 receptions over three postseason games. When Crabtree returned to the field, the 49ers’ offense – which had struggled – suddenly came alive.
His presence gives the 49ers one of the best 1-2 combinations in the NFL, with Boldin. And their situation could be even better in 2014 if more wideouts step up to provide threats, so secondaries can’t blanket those two.
Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh, in fact, was effusive in his praise of Crabtree after San Francisco’s playoff victory in Green Bay, when Crabtree caught eight passes for 125 yards, many of those catches coming in the clutch.
“In the northern snowlands, down to the tropics’ sunny scenes, he’s catching the football,” Harbaugh said of Crabtree after that game. “Where they throw the football, he’ll be catching it.”
Harbaugh, in fact, has called Crabtree the greatest pass catcher he’s ever seen.
As San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ann Killion noted after that game, the 49ers would be wise to re-sign Boldin (done) and extend Crabtree (pending).
“One of the few flaws in the Harbaugh-Trent Baalke partnership has been an inability to draft and develop a wide receiver,” she wrote. “The 49ers should lock up the Super Bowl champion Boldin and the GOAT (greatest of all time) catcher as soon as they can.”
This week, Eric Stark, writing on the 49ers’ website, noted that Crabtree is entering his contract year, and his production in 2014 will go a long way toward determining his value in 2015 – unless, of course, the 49ers extend his deal before the season begins.
“The former high school quarterback and top 50 basketball recruit is unquestionably the 49ers’ No. 1 receiver,” wrote Stark, “but can his pure athleticism, veteran leadership and health solidify his elite status before he becomes a free agent?”
Crabtree is one of four impact players entering their contract years, along with quarterback Colin Kaepernick, linebacker Aldon Smith and guard Mike Iupati. So, the team likely won’t be able to accommodate all of them. Perhaps because of Smith’s off-the-field issues, the team will now shy away from an extension with him, leaving more money for the others.
It’s been reported that Crabtree wants to be paid as an elite receiver. If that’s the case, his days with the 49ers could be over after 2014. After all, receivers such as DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Roddy White and Victor Cruz all make more than $8 million per year, and the best of the best, Calvin Johnson ($16.2 million) and Larry Fitzgerald ($16.1 million) command much more money than San Francisco would be willing to pay.
Even if Crabtree has a sensational season in 2014, the 49ers may not be able to keep their No. 1 receiver if Crabtree is looking to be among the best-paid in the league.