Even though the current offseason is far from over, the San Francisco 49ers need to start thinking about next year’s offseason already. The 49ers will have a lot of tough decisions to make in 2015 as several of the team’s key players hit free agency. In addition to Michael Crabtree — Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and Mike Iupati could also test free agency waters. The 49ers seem to have taken steps in preparation for life after Frank Gore—Carlos Hyde and Marcus Lattimore—but they haven’t really shown they are ready to let Crabtree go.
The 49ers technically have Anquan Boldin signed for five years, with three of those being voidable. But Boldin is 33 years old and is unlikely to play out the entirety of his contract. Bruce Ellington is the closest thing the 49ers have to a future number one receiver. The only potential problem with Ellington assuming the number one role is that he’s significantly undersized at 5-foot-9. However, as 5-foot-10 star receiver DeSean Jackson shows, height should not count you out in being a team’s number one target. Time will only tell if Ellington will become the 49ers premier receiving threat. Which leaves the question: Is Crabtree worth elite money?
Many NFL analysts are pointing to Chicago Bears Brandon Marshall’s contract extension as the barometer for Crabtree’s—I’d stay away from comparing the two. Marshall recently signed a three-year contract extension worth $30 million ($10 million per year) with $23 million guaranteed. The natural knee-jerk reaction is to say that Marshall’s numbers puts a ceiling on Crabtree’s. Not quite. Yes, Marshall is an elite receiver and is compensated like one. He’s also four years older than Crabtree and is likely entering the twilight of his career. Marshall’s $30 million contract will likely be his last without being asked to take a veteran’s discount.
The league’s top-10 highest paid wide receivers in 2014 is as follows:
1. Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions – $16.2 million
2. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals – $16.1 million
3. Percy Harvin, Seattle Seahawks – 12.8 million
4. Mike Wallace, Miami Dolphins – $12 million
5. Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City Chiefs – $11.2 million
6. Brandon Marshall, Chicago Bears – $11.1 million
7. Vincent Jackson, Tampa Bay Bucaneers – $11.1 million
8. Andre Johnson, Houston Texans – $9.6 million
9. Greg Jennings, Minnesota Vikings – $9 million
10. Victor Cruz, New York Giants – $8.6 million
This leaves us with the question of where to put Crabtree. I believe Crabtree is an elite wide receiver and should be compensated as such. I would not give him a Calvin Johnson type contract. There’s simply not enough room in the cap to pay Crabtree that much. For me Crabtree fits in right around the Mike Wallace/Dwayne Bowe/Brandon Marshall tier. Marshall’s contract extension should not be seen as a ceiling to Crabtree’s, but rather a floor. Okay, a floor with a very low ceiling. Crabtree deserves at least $10 million as he will continue to be Kaepernick’s favorite target for a very long time. Crabtree is Kaepernick’s security blanket. We all remember Kaepernick’s performance with Crabtree in the lineup and without. If the 49ers are going to give Kaepernick a long-term extension, they need to give him someone he trusts to throw it to.
The danger with Crabtree is that he’s not afraid to hold out if he doesn’t get what he wants. Crabtree did this before his rookie season when the two sides could not agree on a contract figure. Crabtree ended up missing the entire 49ers training camp along with the first four games of the season.
Also, a quick look at the 2015 wide receiver free agent class should help Crabtree’s negotiations. Roddy White, Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Reggie Wayne, Jordy Nelson and Jeremy Maclin are among the notable names in 2015. Thomas and Bryant will likely lead the pack and Crabtree should not be too far behind. The 49ers need to accept the fact that they have a good young talent in Crabtree. Unfortunately in the NFL, money talks, and that will likely be the only way to keep Crabtree on the 49ers.