Just how “mediocre” is Michael Crabtree?

Richard Sherman.
Everyone has an opinion about him — he’s the best corner in the league; he runs his mouth too much; he’s an intelligent, well-rounded NFL player. Regardless of what you think of Mr. Sherman, there’s no doubt he can play.
Sherman has been well regarded in the league’s inner circle since his 2011 rookie year. However, he really made a name for himself in the mainstream media in the 2013 NFC Championship versus the 49ers. After a game-sealing pass deflection, Sherman gave what has become an infamous on-field interview to Fox’s sideline reporter, Erin Andrews. Among other things, Sherman said — rather screamed — that Michael Crabtree, the 49ers leading receiver during their Super Bowl run the previous year, was “sorry.” Sherman further clarified this comment in his postgame press conference, saying that Crabtree was nothing more than a “mediocre receiver.”
We set out to see if Sherman was on to something — is Michael Crabtree, in fact, simply “mediocre?” The answer may surprise you, Mr. Sherman.

Our Method
The term “mediocre” can be defined in many different ways. The dictionary defines mediocre as “of moderate quality; not very good”1. Nothing can be mediocre on its own; mediocrity requires a comparison. Absent any comparison in Richard Sherman’s statement, we decided to look at two possible perspectives by which to evaluate Crabtree’s mediocrity: 

1. Any receiver who played more than the equivalent of one regular season game (roughly 63 snaps in a season).We expected that Crabtree’s numbers would be far above average in this comparison simply because he plays a lot of snaps.

2. Regular contributors, receivers who played more than 600 snaps per season. This comparison allowed us to see how Crabtree fared among other highly-used receivers — perhaps a more accurate assessment of Sherman’s claim of mediocrity.

Thus, using regular season data from 2009 to 20122, we performed two separate analyses to see how well Crabtree stacks up.

63 Snaps and Above
Above “Mediocre”
As one might expect of a 10th overall pick, Crabtree stacks up pretty well when compared to all NFL receivers who played the equivalent of one NFL game. On a variety of metrics, Crabtree’s 2009-2012 numbers are vastly better than mediocre. Overall, Crabtree performed better than 88% of other wide receivers in a variety of categories, including thrown at, receptions, yards, yards after catch (YAC), touchdowns, and broken tackles (BT).

Below “Mediocre”
On the flip side, Crabtree’s yards per reception were quite mediocre — he only rated better than 49% of receivers. Crabtree also dropped more passes than 94% of other receivers; however, this is an aggregate total not adjusted for targets, so this result is not all that surprising. Indeed, Crabtree ranked in the 72nd percentile in terms of percent of targets caught, which, while not spectacular, is clearly above average.

600 Snaps and above
More telling, perhaps, is looking at how Crabtree stacks up against other highly-used receivers. The following results compare Crabtree’s production from 2009-2012 to the 120 receivers who played more than 600 snaps in a season, which is the minimum number that Crabtree played in any season during that time.

Above “Mediocre”
First, for the good news — at least for Michael Crabtree and 49er fans. After raising the bar for comparison, Crabtree’s performance was still better than mediocre on many receiving statistics. To begin with, Crabtree averaged 10.75 broken tackles per season between 2009 and 2012, better than 92% of receivers. Further, Crabtree averaged 353 yards after contact (YAC) per season, better than 81% of other receivers. Crabtree was also good at protecting the ball, fumbling less than once a year, which was fewer than 71% of all other wide receivers. Crabtree also managed to haul in 64.4% of passes thrown his way, putting him in the top 70% of receivers in percentage of passes caught. A bit less impressive, but still better than average, Crabtree ranked in the top 60% across receivers in receptions, targets, total yards, and touchdowns. Overall, these analyses suggest that in several ways, Crabtree is somewhat better than “mediocre.”

Below “Mediocre”
Of the metrics that we looked at, Crabtree was only below average in one statistic, yards per reception. Crabtree averaged 13 yards per reception (the average for among receivers who caught more than 600 passes is 13.8 yards per reception), which ranked better than only 34% of receivers. This is not entirely surprising given that Crabtree’s role has often been that of slot receiver. Wes Welker, perhaps the league’s preeminent slot receiver, averaged even fewer yards per reception (11.5 yards per reception) than Crabtree over the same time.

Mediocre or Not?
Overall, it appears that Michael Crabtree is not a “mediocre” receiver. According to the data, Crabtree has been a “slightly above mediocre receiver” over the course of his entire career. Moreover, Crabtree has improved away from mediocrity each season of his career. Clearly, though, a sound bite that nuanced would have been far less appealing. To truly know how “mediocre” (or not) Crabtree is, we’ll have to wait until the end of his career. But, until then, the data suggest that Mr. Sherman should be the one who is “sorry” and may be a better cornerback than talent evaluator.

1 http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/mediocre2 We did not include 2013 data; recall that Crabtree only played 5 games during the 2013 regular season due to an Achilles injury suffered in the offseason.

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