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GameDay: Who Will Step Up In Crabtree’s Absence?

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Dolphins v 49ers

The 49ers’ Michael Crabtree gets wrapped up by the Dolphins’ Nolan Carroll in the 1st quarter, Dec. 9, 2012 in San Francisco. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

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KPIX 5 Sports Director Dennis O’Donnell hosts “Gameday” every Sunday night at 11:30pm on CBS 5 and offers his unique sports analysis here.

Wasn’t it just yesterday I was writing about the Giants loss of Ryan Vogelsong? Was Michael Crabtree drinking the same water?  Or perhaps he took a swig from Mario Manningham or Kyle Williams. Whatever the case, Crabtree’s loss is the worst of them all.

The ever-optimistic Jim Harbaugh says the torn Achilles isn’t season-ending. But even if Crabtree pulls off a  miraculous comeback in time to play in 2013, how effective can he possibly be?  Truth is, the 49ers will prepare to play the season without their star receiver who quickly became Colin Kaepernick’s “go-to guy.”

I should point out that Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs came back to play last year after suffering a torn Achilles earlier in the year.   If Crabtree comes back in 2013 it’s a bonus, not an expectation.  Consequently, someone or some people will have to fill the void of 85 receptions, 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns. AJ Jenkins, come on down!

What a shame for Crabtree, who finally had a breakout season after the 49ers picked him 10th overall in 2009.  He quickly earned the reputation of a diva after a 71-day holdout as a rookie.  Then came a pre-season neck injury in 2010, followed by a broken foot in 2011.  A bust alright, just not the kind you put in Canton. Then came 2012, when Crabtree played like he was back at Texas Tech. He became Alex Smith’s third-down savior, hauling in 30 catches on third down, including five touchdown. And when the Kapper took over for good, Crabtree’s talents truly emerged. It should be noted that Crabtree is signed through 2014, so the 49ers first season in their new digs could potentially be a defining year for his future in San Francisco.

What now? Well, the acquisition of Anquan Boldin certainly looks good now. Vernon Davis will have to become a bigger target for Kapernick, and we’ll see how Mario Manningham responds after ACL surgery.  I gotta believe that this is AJ Jenkins time to either step up or step out.  He was a major disappointment as a rookie and the leash is as short as it’s going to get.  I’m hearing good things about 4th round pick Quinton Patton, but nobody wins a job in OTAs.

Free agent?  The guy that best fits Michael Crabtree’s style, to me, is Brandon Lloyd.  He’s got great hands like Crabtree and he can out leap anyone in the NFL. There are some in the 49ers front office who simply don’t like Brandon,  but when a team is this close to winning a Super Bowl,  it’s production that matters, not personalities.

Many are labeling the loss of Crabtree as a game-changer in the NFC West.  Think again. In some ways, it might make Kaepernick a better quarterback. He was so locked in on Crabtree that Vernon Davis, clearly capable of being the most dangerous tight end in football,  became an afterthought. In San Francisco’s two-tight end formation, which was used more than any team in the NFL, Davis is the guy most likely to gain from Crabtree’s loss. In the words of a longtime baseball agent, Kaepernick will be forced to “explore all options.”

Then again, I’m sure Trent Baalke’s number is busy right about now.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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