Commentary

Is Crabtree or Morgan the better sleeper?

Updated: August 16, 2009, 2:09 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

32 Questions

Who's a better fantasy sleeper at receiver, Michael Crabtree or Josh Morgan?

April 25, 2009, 4:59 p.m. ET: Here's your first insane pick, and what a surprise, it comes from the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders bypassed Michael Crabtree (who looks almost manic in the green room) to take University of Maryland wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey. … I can't see how you pass up Crabtree for DHB …

5:27 p.m. ET: Talk about a controversy by the Bay (or make that Bey). Three picks after the Raiders bypassed Michael Crabtree to take Darrius Heyward-Bey, their rivals across the bay, the San Francisco 49ers, took Crabtree. These two guys will be linked for their entire NFL careers, and I have a strong feeling that Crabtree will come out on the positive side of that competition. While it's true that Crabtree played in the furthest thing from a pro-style offense at Texas Tech, I don't care. He's a freak in the open field, he's a good route runner, and he's polished. He might not be the perfect deep threat, but he's a touchdown maker. Like all rookie receivers, Crabtree has a long road to fantasy glory, especially considering we're talking about a conservative Mike Singletary offense helmed by some combination of Shaun Hill, Alex Smith and Damon Huard. But I'd rank Crabtree slightly ahead of Josh Morgan as the most valuable fantasy receiver on the 49ers, and that's saying something, because I like Morgan a lot. This is a great pick for the Niners.

I wrote these two entries in our NFL draft blog this spring as fast as my little fingers would type. The fact that the Raiders took Heyward-Bey with the seventh overall pick still shocks me, but this edition of 32 Questions is about the San Francisco 49ers, so for the moment DHB is beside the point. The more pressing question right now is, should Crabtree really have gone that high? And more importantly, do I still agree with my own breathless assessment that Crabtree is the most valuable fantasy receiver in San Francisco, ahead of second-year man Morgan?

I do not.

Man, that blogger was a dope, huh?

Michael Crabtree
AP Photo/Paul SakumaGetting on the field is the first hurdle for rookie Michael Crabtree.

Listen, I still like Crabtree. I like his career prospects more than any receiver taken in the '09 draft. No, he's not a true burner (we don't have an accurate 40 time for him, since he didn't run at this year's combine), but neither is Anquan Boldin, and that doesn't stop Q from making plays. Crabtree has the potential to be that kind of player: physical, elusive and sure-handed. But there are several factors working against him headed into his rookie year.

First, he's a 49er. As I alluded to above, San Francisco figures to feature a four-corners offense designed to limit the exposure of quarterbacks Hill and/or Smith (who's reportedly made a lot of positive noise in Niners camp). Frank Gore should carry the mail for Singletary and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye in a way Mike Martz didn't fully embrace last year, and the improving San Francisco defense should allow the offense to be more patient. Next, there's Crabtree's broken foot, which may have caused him to slip in the draft. When Crabtree wanted to run with the starters in minicamps this summer, Singletary admonished his rookie to the point where Crabtree wept, because the 49ers want to be absolutely certain he's healthy. Next, there's the Eugene Parker factor. Parker, Crabtree's agent, has perhaps the league's singular reputation as a holdout artist; he's asking San Francisco for top-three money under the premise that Crabtree should've gone higher than 10th overall. The team hasn't budged. Every day that goes by is a day the 49ers' offensive plans get set without Crabtree as a starter. And there's the fact that Crabtree ran in the spread offense at Texas Tech, so every missed moment of camp hurts. Finally, there's a question about Crabtree's maturity. As with many rookies, it may take some hard knocks before he "figures it out."

On the other side, you've got Morgan. He was the star of 49ers training camp last year, and seemed set to start right away, but he came down with a staph infection that knocked him out of the regular rotation for the '08 season's first month, then a groin injury hobbled him thereafter. Throughout most of the team's workouts this summer, Morgan ran mostly as the flanker, which allows him to use his size and strength to battle for the ball in traffic. Plus, he was reportedly seen making numerous down-the-field plays in situations where the defense rolled away from his side. Now, the San Francisco offense has gotten away from the flanker a bit (Jerry Rice's old position) in recent years, preferring to use the "X" (or split end). Yet in Morgan's case, that doesn't scare me terribly because: (a) I think strongside linebackers are going to have two feet in the box against the Niners' ground game, meaning (I hope) Morgan should see a fair amount of one-on-one or two-deep coverage without inside help, and (b) Morgan can also play the "X" receiver role, if to comes to that. He did it last year some, and made a few spectacular catches, especially in his big Week 7 game against the Giants.

I think in an ideal world, Crabtree would start as San Francisco's split end and Morgan would be the flanker, which probably would give Crabtree more big-play opportunities. But this isn't an ideal world. The way it's looking right now, with Crabtree unsigned and making little progress toward a deal, I won't be shocked if Isaac Bruce or even Brandon Jones winds up starting opposite Morgan, which would probably make Morgan the split end and focal point of the 49ers' passing game. And even if Crabtree gets in camp, he's got a ton to learn about a professional offense, and about route running in the NFL. The more I've thought about it, and the more glowing reports that have come out of San Francisco about Morgan, the more I believe he's going to be the most important fantasy player in that passing offense. In my personal ranking of wide receivers, I'd probably put him around 40th: high enough to draft as a sleeper in the late rounds, though not high enough to pencil into your starting lineup. As for Crabtree, I reiterate my admiration for his career prospects and don't think the Niners made a mistake grabbing him as he fell in April's draft. But if you're in a redraft league, I bet he'll go higher than he should in '09.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.