This is the 40th in a series of opinionated fantasy football columns that will be posted daily in July and August, providing fantasy owners with some insights to consider as they prepare for their drafts. You can get an in-depth preview of the upcoming fantasy football season with the purchase of the Yahoo! Sports / Pro Football Weekly Fantasy Football Guide 2010, available now in newsstands and bookstores, or online at PFWstore.com.
After finally working his way into the 49ers' starting lineup in Week Seven against the Texans in his rookie campaign last season — the same game in which Alex Smith permanently replaced Shaun Hill as the team's starting quarterback — WR Michael Crabtree opened up more than a few eyes.
In only 11 games, the highly touted first-round draft pick out of Texas Tech ended up catching 48 passes for 625 yards and a pair of touchdowns — the most receptions by a Niners rookie receiver since Hall of Famer Jerry Rice.
Now just imagine what Crabtree might have done had he actually known the playbook, which, by all accounts, he already knows inside and out entering his second season at the pro level.
Crabtree's belated debut in the NFL has been well-documented. For starters, there was the stress fracture in his foot his final season at Texas Tech that kept him from doing any on-field work during last season's offseason program.
A prolonged contract impasse — he finally signed on Oct. 7 — made matters worse.
This year, however, it's a totally different story, one that has many wondering just how good Crabtree can be with an entire slate of offseason practices under his belt.
"It can make me from good to great," Crabtree said after a voluntary workout in early June. "All the great players know what they're doing. They know the whole playbook. I'm just trying to get to their point."
According to 49ers offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, Crabtree could be on the right track.
"On top of being a wide receiver, he's a very good football player," Raye said of Crabtree, who caught at least four passes in nine of his 11 games last season and has a shot at becoming a legitimate fantasy force this season. "He has natural, innate instincts (and an) understanding of the game and how to play the game.
"He's gifted with a great, natural ability of eye-hand coordination to catch the ball. It made it easier to play last year with the limited background he had of what we were doing."
But there's a catch in a fantasy context — the continued uncertainty as to what exactly the Niners' offense plans on doing in the second year under Raye's direction.
When the offense was operating out of the spread/shotgun last season, there was a rapport between Crabtree and Smith that bodes quite well for both of their fantasy futures.
But Niners head coach Mike Singletary has gone on record on numerous occasions espousing a much more run-oriented, smashmouth style, and Raye has traditionally opted for a similar approach with a passing game reliant on QB drops and play-action.
It remains to be seen just what the Niners' offensive identity will be this season. In the meantime, Crabtree appears to have taken a quantum leap in terms of his fantasy potential, running precise routes and catching almost every ball thrown to him from Smith in stride.
"He looks better," one veteran daily team observer told PFW. "He's very smart and figures to be the first option at wide receiver.
"The only real problem is just how much the Niners' system will suit him."
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