Catching up with 49ers' Michael Crabtree

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Michael Crabtree snatched passes cleanly and generally looked like a No. 1 wide receiver during the San Francisco 49ers' practices I attended last week.

The plays he made on the field meant less in the setting. There's no sense in reading too much into offseason practices in shorts and without pads. We know NFL players can catch passes in practice.

That is why I watched more closely the interactions between Crabtree and his veteran teammates. What I saw was a continuation of the respect Crabtree surprisingly commanded almost from the moment he joined the team last season following a prolonged contract dispute. The transition could not have appeared more natural, proving that veterans will respect rookies who work hard and produce.

At one point in practice last week, Crabtree knelt along the sideline with Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis and Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore. The three chatted and laughed together, carrying on as equals. It reminded me of a moment in the 49ers' locker room at Houston last season after Crabtree collected receptions on three of the team's four third-down conversions -- terrific work for a player making his NFL debut. Left tackle Joe Staley came over to Crabtree's locker and shook hands with the rookie, shattering the "diva" label that dogged Crabtree some coming out of Texas Tech.

Crabtree has shown the 49ers from his debut that the team can take him for granted. He averaged 4.4 receptions per game last season, fifth best in the NFC West among wide receivers. Only seasoned veterans Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Nate Burleson had more. Crabtree also averaged more yards per reception than any NFC West wide receiver with more than six catches. And he did it without having set foot on an NFL practice field for organized team activities, minicamps or training camp.

"I think it speaks volumes to the fact that, on top of being a wide receiver, he’s a very good football player," offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye said last week. "He has natural, innate instincts, understanding of the game and how to play the game. He’s gifted with a great, natural ability of eye-hand coordination to catch the ball. It made it easier to play last year with the limited background he had of what we were doing."

When the 49ers made Raye available for interviews last month, reporters asked about Alex Smith and offensive continuity. There wasn't a single question about the player San Francisco drafted 10th overall last year. Crabtree left few questions about his ability or approach unanswered even though he has much to prove entering his first full season in the NFL.

"To tell you the truth, I'm still just learning," Crabtree said.

Crabtree shrugs off positive reviews from his rookie season.

"I feel like I messed up a lot," he said. "Being a rookie, you know you are going to mess up. I never worried about messing up. Just tried to get better."

Crabtree seems already able to separate what's important from what is not. He said he's been at the 49ers' facility every day this offseason, focusing on developing what already seemed to be a strong rapport with Smith. Crabtree caught between four and six passes in nine of the 11 games he played last season -- with three receptions in each of the other two. Still, he said his top priority is to become more consistent.

"I'm trying to get my feet up under me," Crabtree said. "I feel like I'm getting my juice back where I'm getting that YAC [yards after catch]. I want to get that YAC this year and really take it to the next level."

I was a little surprised to learn that Crabtree fared so well in yards per reception. The 49ers had 14 plays of at least 35 yards once Smith took over as quarterback last season. Crabtree caught passes on five of them. Gore accounted for six of the plays. Davis accounted for three. My perception was that the distribution might have been reversed. Consider it an indication that Crabtree, impressive as he was, might have been even more effective than he appeared.

The comfort level between Smith and Crabtree is only improving with a full offseason together. Smith wasn't even the starter this time last offseason. Crabtree wasn't close to joining the team for practices.

"Right now, it feels like we're on the same page," Crabtree said. "I don't have to look for the ball. It's like back in the day [at Texas Tech] with me and Graham [Harrell]. I'm getting that kind of vibe right now. I can't wait to really work hard in this training camp to put it all together."

2009 NFC West WRs: Receptions per game