October 2, 2016 - Baltimore, Maryland, U.S - Oakland Raiders wide receiver MICHAEL CRABTREE (15) celebrates after scoring a touchdown at M & T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland (Photo by Amy Sanderson/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)
Oakland Raiders

Michael Crabtree bet paying off, gives Raiders unfamiliar WR future

(Photo by Amy Sanderson/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

It’s obvious the Raiders have not featured many position units at or close to the best in the game for a long time. There’s no need to recall the horror most of this century brought. But what’s available to Oakland right now at wide receiver looks better than almost every group the franchise has ever possessed.

Michael Crabtree’s first four games this season have provided a fairly good indication the Raiders’ No. 2 wide receiver was not a contract-year wonder. Everything about that gamble has worked out for the Silver and Black, and in Crabtree and Amari Cooper, the Raiders not only have one of the best wide-receiving duos in team history, but one of the best in the league.

For starters, the Raiders betting Crabtree’s 2015 resurgence was legit allowed them to beat the rush on what was a busy summer for receivers of his caliber. By signing the former first-round pick to a four-year, $34 million extension, Oakland actually appears to have underpaid for a quality wideout in his prime.

A slew of bigger deals came to players on, below or slightly above his level, with the likes of Allen Hurns, Keenan Allen, Doug Baldwin, Tavon Austin (yikes) and Emmanuel Sanders all signing for between $10-$12M per year. Crabtree’s extension — which is, of course, frontloaded, it being the formerly desperate-for-talent Raiders and all — through 2019 averages $8.5M per season. That’s fringe top-20 price at receiver, and while about accurate for where Crabtree stands in the game, he’s making considerably less than the receivers who reset this market in 2016.

In a stretch the Raiders convinced many top-end free agents to take their money for the first time in ages, they appear to have a steal in the 29-year-old Crabtree.

The Raiders have a top-five tandem out wide, with only the Broncos — and maybe the Packers and Jets — being definitively better right now. And the franchise has employed notable receiving nuclei in its not-too-distant past, but this one could be an all-time pair for the franchise.

The Crabtree wager sets up the Raiders in the short- and long-term, with it providing two go-to targets for Derek Carr at a point in time when the team doesn’t have a reliable tight end yet. This gives the Raiders a chance to build around quality receivers for the first time in ages. We’re talking Fred Biletnikoff/Cliff Branch ages.

It’s not like Oakland hasn’t trotted out great receivers in between the 1970s and now. Obviously, their most productive receiver just entered the Hall of Fame, and the Tim Brown-Jerry Rice tandem involved more talent than Cooper-Crabtree. But that arrangement was not a foundation around which the Raiders could rely, with Rice being 39 and Brown 35 when they created that unique pairing.

James Jett was Brown’s longest-tenured sidekick, starting from 1996-2000, but he was a one-dimensional deep threat who scared teams but didn’t offer much versatility. The Willie Gault-Mervyn Fernandez coalition — of Tecmo Super Bowl lore — also produced multiple productive years.

But what could happen with this combination of top-10 picks looks pretty clearly to be better than both.

Biletnikoff and Branch each played at least 14 seasons but started together for only four years (1974-77), so their NFL Films clips are a bit deceiving when it comes to longevity together. Biletnikoff was 31 when Branch moved into the lineup. Their stretch as a pair just happened to coincide with the franchise’s peak.

It’s too early to place the current starters with these two, but the Raiders are set up like they have never been — with two receivers in their prime for a period of years. Oakland had the makings of this with Randy Moss/Jerry Porter, but it’s not worth rehashing what occurred. Their successors are equally unworthy of mention, but they did help place the team in position to select Cooper and reload the offense.

The former 49ers castoff dizzied the Ravens on the Raiders’ game-winning drive Sunday, showing he can beat teams in a variety of ways and at myriad spots. After catching two earlier touchdowns — one from his customary right wide receiver position and the other out of the near slot — his three-catch drive came on three different routes, beating multiple Baltimore corners.

Crabtree’s dynamic double move froze Shareece Wright, and Carr dropped in a second pinpoint throw for that 23-yard game-winner. This kind of reliability proved pivotal, and a No. 2 receiver taking over a crucial stretch showed the kind of capabilities this passing game has with a developing quarterback — one with the highest ceiling of anyone Crabtree’s played with.

Clive Walford and Seth Roberts are growing into their roles, but Crabtree’s veteran status and ability to move the chains will be critical for a still-developing core. His 11.2 yards per catch looks like a slot receiver number, but it’s an appropriate complement for Cooper’s downfield playmaking abilities. The latter performer is not as refined yet, making the kind of work Crabtree does vital.

The Raiders don’t have a replacement here, so the December re-up looms a potential cornerstone moment. Crabtree should be able to comprise part of this passing game for a while. With the contract’s biggest cap number coming this year, his future hits — $7M in 2017, $7.75M in ’18, $8.25M in ’19 — are somewhat enticing for a player who’s showing what he is right now.

As the cap continues to rise, those figures won’t look like much. It’s a lot like the David Amerson deal. Both will give the Silver and Black flexibility for their impending extensions for Carr and Khalil Mack.

Crabtree’s dependable start continues a string of smart decisions for a team that did not make very many for a long time, and his contributions will go a long way toward determining whether Raiders can actually follow up on this 3-1 quadrant and challenge for the playoffs.

Michael Crabtree bet paying off, gives Raiders unfamiliar WR future

More of Your Raiders with Locked on Raiders Podcast


To Top