Controversy already with Crabtree?

On Thursday, 49ers offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye dropped a bomb of sorts on the hopes of San Francisco fans when he told reporters that Michael Crabtree ran just two routes in college at Texas Tech.

Two routes? That’s right, the hitch (or the stop route) and the 9-route (or the fly route). Not what you’d expect to see from a top-10 pick, and not what you’d expect to see from a rookie who just ended a holdout that drew national attention for its length and drama.

But even with that, we shouldn’t be surprised about Raye’s comments for a couple of reasons, because as I’ve said since April and the NFL Draft, we usually don’t see much from high-profile rookie wideouts.

For starters, Crabtree was just that much better than the competition in the Big 12. There wasn’t a defensive back in the conference who could match up to his athleticism on the field, and it’s a major contributor to the idea that he ran only two routes in college.

Corners usually played off-man coverage against Crabtree — with big cushions — afraid to give up the big play. In return, Crabtree could press hard off the line of scrimmage with a vertical release, watch the corner backpedal out of his stance — almost in a panic — and sit down. A five-yard route that now turns into a one-on-one matchup with ample space for Crabtree to work with in the open field. One missed tackle, and that five-yard route turns into a 20-, 30-yard gain — because he was that good in college.

And when teams actually did press him — usually with safety help over the top — it became a race for Crabtree to beat the jam at the line and get the football before the safety could get from his middle of the field or Cover 2 landmark.

Easy. Very easy at that level for a player of Crabtree’s caliber.

But as Raye said, the learning curve ahead of the rookie is big — very big — because he has no idea what kind of competition he’s going to face on Sundays.

Scouts are down on the Big 12 for a reason. Everyone runs the spread, and the defenses in that conference aren’t exactly top of the line. It’s usually an easy pitch and catch for the offense, and the speed on defense isn’t up to par with the speed of a player like Crabtree.

Talking to scouts, they have a hard time evaluating offensive talent in the Big 12 because defenses allow them to make plays, and Crabtree took full advantage of that.

However, this doesn’t hide that fact that Crabtree will be trying to evolve into a pro receiver — along with learning actual pro routes — on the fly. By prolonging his holdout, he has missed the train when it comes to development, missed the one-on-ones in camp against Nate Clements and missed the preseason, which would have improved his understanding of pro offenses and defenses immensely.

Now that process will have to work itself into the normal routine of game plans and film study for the Niners.

Can Crabtree do it? Can the rookie develop midseason in the NFL knowing only two basic routes that we see every Friday night at the high school level?

That answer will have to wait, just as Raye and the Niners wait to see what they really have.

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