San Francisco 49ers

FA watch: Crabtree, others off to slower-than-desired start

Michael Crabtree is off to a slow start in his contract year. Still, he and Stevie Johnson are tied for the team lead in touchdown catches with three.
Michael Crabtree is off to a slow start in his contract year. Still, he and Stevie Johnson are tied for the team lead in touchdown catches with three. The Bee

Michael Crabtree, whom Jim Harbaugh once said had “the best hands I've ever seen on a wide receiver,” leads the 49ers wide receivers in dropped passes through seven games. According to Pro Football Focus, Crabtree has dropped five of 37 catch-able balls, giving him a 13.51 percent drop rate, which also is the worst among the team's wideouts.

Stevie Johnson has the best drop rate on the team – 3.85 – in hauling in 25 of 26 catch-able balls, followed by Anquan Boldin (39-42, three drops) and Brandon Lloyd (10 of 11, one drop), according to PFF.

Among the team's tight ends, Derek Carrier has hauled in all eight catch-able passes while Vernon Davis has struggled with four drops on 18 catch-able passes (22.22 percent drop rate). Vance McDonald is even worse in dropping one of the three passes (33.33 percent) that were within reach.

Crabtree ranks 53rd in the NFL in receiving yards, and that position will drop significantly over the weekend as the 49ers are on their bye. Obviously, this isn't the start he was envisioning for his contract year, and the question becomes whether this makes it more or less likely Crabtree is back in 2015.

The two sides negotiated during the offseason, but they never were as close as was reported in the summer. It's unlikely that Crabtree and his camp would lower their demands, and it seems likely that the receiver will hit the open market in March, which is where this was heading all along.

But that's also where it becomes more interesting. If Crabtree continues along his current path, he may not find the riches he is seeking, especially with several other high-profile wideouts entering free agency. In that way, there's a possibility that Crabtree tests his worth and ultimately finds that the 49ers are the best fit, a la Dashon Goldson during the 2011 offseason.

Of course, there's also the possibility that Crabtree heats up during the second half of the season and – even better for his value – in the postseason. That likely would put his price tag far out of the 49ers' reach. Crabtree and Johnson are tied for the team lead in touchdown catches with three.

Johnson also has a large bearing on the situation. Crabtree's322 yards rank second on the team behind Boldin. But a close third is Johnson, who has 315 yards despite the fact that Crabtree has played more than double the number of snaps as Johnson, 352 to 147.

Johnson is under contract for the next two seasons at about $6 million each year. While that's an awful lot for a No. 4 receiver – which is what Johnson has been as far as snap counts – it's right in line for a starting receiver. That's what Johnson would be if Crabtree and Lloyd, another receiver who becomes a free agent in 2015, are not here next year.

Other significant free agents:

RB Frank Gore – The 49ers obviously have begun the transition from their long-time bell cow by drafting big-name tailbacks in successive years. The question is whether Gore wants to play out the remainder of his career in a progressively diminishing role (which would entail a progressively diminishing contract). How well Marcus Lattimore performs over the second half of the season will factor into this dynamic. The 49ers also are confident Kendall Hunter – who also is a pending free agent – will make a full recovery from ACL surgery.

G Mike Iuapti – Like Crabtree, Iupati is off to a staggered start. He figures to be better the farther away he gets from the broken leg that knocked him out of the NFC Championship game. Iupati is likely to test his worth on the open market. And with Alex Boone, Dillon Farrell, Daniel Kilgore, Joe Looney, Jonathan Martin, Marcus Martin and Brandon Thomas all capable of playing on the interior of the line, it's hard to see the 49ers getting into a bidding war for Iupati. The smart money says that Thomas is his heir at left guard.

CB Chris Culliver – He's been outplayed by another soon-to-be free-agent cornerback, Perrish Cox, through the first seven games. Culliver has been a headache for the team since the 2012 Super Bowl. He seems like another player who at least will get to test his worth on the open market. The 49ers have an abundance of young cornerbacks in Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser and Kenneth Acker. In addition, Veteran Chris Cook is playing on a league minimum, one-year contract this year and shouldn't be hard to re-sign next year.

CB Perrish Cox – Cox came to the 49ers with all sorts of red flags in 2012 but has been no trouble since then and is in the midst of his best season this year. That Cox also can play nickel cornerback adds to his value. Could the 49ers strike a deal with him before the year is out? If so, it would be tantamount to a goodbye to Culliver.

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