Obscure Studs of the NFL

Next: Jamison Crowder

The Oakland Raiders’ offense has been one of the most exciting of the 2016 season. Combining that with a favorable schedule, the team has lived up to expectations thus far and has throttled out to a 6-2 start to the season.

Much of this has to do with the all-around talent the offense has. Derek Carr is widely considered an MVP candidate right now, the offensive line is one of the best in the league, and the run game with Latavius Murray, DeAndre Washington, and the intriguing undrafted Jalen Richard is much improved. But it’s the receiving core that’s the real star of the show. Receivers like Amari Cooper, Andre Holmes, Seth Roberts, and Clive Walford offer excitement with their wide catch radii and fit into Oakland’s YAC style offense.

One veteran thought to have seen his best days behind him has been a massive playmaker for the Raiders since his arrival, though, and that receiver is Michael Crabtree.

After spending his first 6 seasons in San Francisco, Crabtree took a change in scenery and signed a low risk-high reward deal with the Raiders in 2015 for one year and $3.2M. With a 922-yard 9 TD season as the Raiders’ #2 receiving option, Crabtree was finally at full health (missing much of 2013 with an Achilles injury and recovering all of 2014), in which the team rewarded him with a 4-year $35M extension.

Once thought to be yet ANOTHER washed out star spending his days in Oakland, Crabtree has experienced a rebirth in Oakland, catching 15 TD passes while being a primary target in the red zone and on third down.

Crabtree has always been a very talented receiver, and 2016 may be the best season of his career thus far. Below, I shall explain why he’s been so good in Oakland using the usual GIFs.

Terrific At Route Running

The Raiders are an offense where each skill player is put in the best spots for their skill sets. With Crabtree being the #2 guy, he has become a possession receiver while at the same time showcasing his talents.

Crabtree is a master of the art of route running. He’s one of the more underrated experts at the double move, using it to fake out defenders in man-to-man coverage. At full health, it’s become easy for him to gain separation, giving Derek Carr another favorable target with the talents of a #1 guy.

On each of these 4 GIFs, Crabtree is able to gain separation easily. The first GIF is impressive because Crabtree comes back to an inaccurate pass despite being open, gets the ball, and gets the first down and YAC, bailing out his QB. The 3rd GIF is perhaps the most impressive because of how Crabtree fools the Saints’ defender on the route, doing a double move, faking a cut inside, then cutting outside at the last second, making him wide open for a nice sideline catch.

As far as routes in general, Crabtree excels in running great ones. In the slant route above, nothing looks out of the ordinary at first, but watch how quickly Crabtree changes direction in his route. The corner guarding him plays back, thinking the receiver is going deep, but Crabtree baits him by cutting inside in the blink of an eye, making the catch for a 3rd down conversion (he’s really good at those).

YAC Freak

The Raiders are a YAC (yards after the catch) based offense at heart. The offense requires quick throws, slants, screens, bubble screens, checkdowns, dumpoffs, you name it. They need quick receivers, receivers who can break tackles, and elusive receivers.

Crabtree is a favorable YAC receiver because of how quickly he adjusts his body after the catch. He understands what’s at stake, immediately (and I mean immediately) adjusting his body after catching the ball. He’s not one to drop a pass due to taking his eyes off it, but rather acting immediately after doing so. He’s able to sense the angles tacklers have on him and go the other way for big yards after the catch.

On these 4 plays, this is evident. Crabtree is impressively built as an athlete; At 215 lb, Crabtree is able to take hits and is difficult to bring down, but at the same time is able to elude defenders thanks to his body adjustment after the catch. #15 is an aggressive receiver, but he isn’t careless. In the 2nd GIF, the receiver shows his ability to protect himself against an incoming defender. As an experienced and refined receiver, Crabtree is able to bull doze over a defender by lowering his head and truck through. This gains a few more yards after the catch than he had already gotten.

On these plays, Crabtree knows which direction to turn to immediately; it’s what’s fun to look at when he’s running after the catch in space.

Member Of The Hands Team

One thing you’ll hear a lot from analysts regarding Michael Crabtree is that he has great hands, and you’ll get the same response here. Crabtree is aggressive before the catch, as shown in a few aforementioned GIFs, and attacks the ball quickly on short/intermediate routes.

But what’s more impressive are his pure ball skills. As natural as the hands of the elite wide receivers, Crabtree understands where to be and when and where to put his hands out to catch the ball. This sounds like an obvious statement that can describe any receiver in the league, but what needs to be understood is how limited and inconsistent many receivers are at this stage. Whether it’s due to the size of the receiver’s hands or their approach/angle at the catch point, certain receivers like Kelvin Benjamin, Dorial Green-Beckham, and Will Fuller have not made the more difficult catches or show off consistent ball skills in their early careers. Veterans like Ted Ginn struggle at this approach as well.

Not the case with Crabtree. In the first GIF, Derek Carr is hit (not seen on the replay) and underthrows the ball as a result. Crabtree notices this right away and helps out his quarterback, stopping, sliding his feet, and making an impressive catch that helps the Raiders. It’s this type of ball skills that has made Crabtree a priority as a 3rd down receiver; he’s currently tied for the 3rd most 1st down conversions of any receiver in the league with 34, having 45 all of 2015.

In the 2nd GIF, Crabtree keeps his eyes on the bomb from Carr the whole way on the vertical route. The corner on him takes a bad angle, but what strikes out is Crabtree’s ability to see the ball, get in the right spot, and make the catch Willy Mays style. Even more impressive is his ball security; right after the ball lands in his hands, the receiver makes sure to tuck the ball with one hand so he doesn’t lose it. In the 3rd GIF, Crabtree makes an impressive adjustment on a tight throw, grabbing the ball out of the air and managing to hang on despite taking a hit.

Speaking of taking hits…

Taking Hits And Hanging On To The Football

Another mistake many receivers in the NFL make is dropping passes after getting hit. They might make impressive grabs, but regardless if they’re in the air or not, these receivers can’t haul in the grabs when a defender knocks them out. This is what separates the good and great receivers from the rest, and it’s a trait Crabtree again succeeds in.

In the first GIF, Carr throws a perfect touchdown pass to Crabtree, and the receiver’s play is just as impressive if not more so. Leaping between two defenders, Crabtree shows off more of his ball skills, makes a great catch, and more importantly, hangs on when taking a shot. It’s followed in the 2nd GIF, which is even better. The catch is ordinary, but watch how Crabtree lowers his head on the touchdown; he knows he is going to get hit, lowers his head, and secures the ball in his chest, allowing him to hang on to the big play.

Lastly…

Staying In Bounds On Tough Catches

Perhaps Crabtree’s greatest trait as a receiver is his footwork; it’s excellent. Especially at sideline and end zone catches, it’s made for some spectacular plays.

Crabtree is so reliable on sideline throws because of his body movement and footwork; he multitasks and focuses himself on catching the ball and making sure that his feet stay in bounds so that the catch stands. As shown in the GIFs above, he is terrific at that.

All of these plays are really good, but the last one may be the best I’ve seen Crabtree make. Against the Ravens from this season, Carr connects to Crabtree for the game winning touchdown, and it’s fantastic when looking at Crabtree. The receiver does another excellent double move on the route to fake out the defender, then, in the corner of the end zone, makes a tight catch while making sure his left foot drags in bounds. Again, many receivers cannot offer this footwork, focusing too much on making the catch and not enough on staying in bounds.

Here, Crabtree makes a spectacular play, one that gives the Raiders a massive win on the road.

CONCLUSION

Over the last year, Michael Crabtree has become one of my favorite wide receivers to watch. He’s one of the smartest WRs in the league, polished on all fronts, and can work from any length of the field. You’ll never see him give up on a play; he’s a guy that is well disciplined and it’s obvious that he works hard and loves what he does.

Crabtree is a master at wide receiver, something a lot of people won’t admit. He has excellent ball skills, footwork, ability after the catch, route running, is aggressive, and can hang on to the football on big hits. 2016 has been his best season yet thanks to the amount of opportunities he’s received and the peak of efficiency he has offered.

Many upcoming receivers or people who enjoy watching tape can learn a lot from Crabtree’s film. He has all the tools and technical ability, which has made him the great wide receiver he is. The Raiders knew right away they not only had a veteran presence for Amari Cooper, but also an excellent #2 target that can thrive anywhere he’s asked, and as such gave him the extension after the 2015 season.

Michael Crabtree is not a sorry receiver. He is and always has been a great receiver, and one of the most rewarding free agents the Oakland Raiders have had in a long, long time.

Obscure Studs of the NFL

Next: Jamison Crowder

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