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In NFL draft: Advantage, 49ers


SANTA CLARA

Sure, the 49ers weren?t competing with the Raiders in the NFL draft. They merely wanted the best available player. But the Niners beat the pants off the Raiders anyway.

Be clear about this. The Niners drafted the top playmaker of all the available college players, drafted one of the few elite players in this mediocre draft, drafted someone who can be a flat-out star in, say, three years and after that he might be a superstar.

Be clear about this, also. The Niners liked Crabtree, coveted him from afar. But they never in a million years thought they could get their eager hands on this kid, a receiver nfldraftscout.com compares to Anquan Boldin right now.

That?s where the Raiders came in. You never can underestimate the Raiders because they?ll always perform lower than you?d imagine in your most vivid nightmare. When Oakland drafted at No.7, Crabtree was there, available, waiting.

Did they take him? Of course not. Crabtree would have made sense. They went for Darrius Heyward-Bey, no better than the third-best receiver available, maybe not even that high.

It?s obvious why the Raiders drafted their guy. Speed. Al Davis has been in love with speed since he chased someone down Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn decades ago. But there is more to playing wide receiver than speed. There are football instincts. Credit Crabtree over Heyward-Bey. There are hands. Practically every scouting report says Heyward-Bey?s hands are suspect. Every scouting report says Crabtree?s hands are velvet, gorgeous, top of the line. He also blocks better than most wideouts and out-jumps most defensive backs for the football. He is a difference maker on the field, someone who makes plays and changes games. With the Niners? weak quarterbacks, this is exactly the player they need.

When the 10th pick came around, the Niner brass were sitting in their war room going over various scenarios. Suddenly, the unimaginable had happened. Crabtree was there. General manager Scot McCloughan looked at coach Mike Singletary. He said, almost certainly in an astonished voice, ?Mike, this is great.?

No kidding. It not only was great. It was a miracle.

?We got a playmaker,? Singletary told the media a few minutes later. ?We know we have a playmaker.? Singletary seemed in love with the word ?playmaker,? as he should be.

So, what are the issues with Crabtree? There always are issues.

Well, he?s not as fast as other receivers. He?s not as fast as Heyward-Bey. Call that the ?speed illusion? which the Raiders always fall for. For the sake of comparison, think about the young Jerry Rice. No one is saying Crabtree is Rice. That would be insane. Rice was the best and Crabtree hasn?t played a game in the NFL. Think of Rice, anyway.

The knock on Rice when he came to the NFL was he lacked speed. Bill Walsh, who never went with the conventional wisdom, looked at Rice and made a distinction between two kinds of speed. There was track speed, which Rice lacked. But there was a more important kind of speed ? functional speed.

From Walsh?s point of view, Rice?s functional speed ? playing speed ? was exceptional. Walsh was right and it?s likely Crabtree?s playing speed is better-suited to football than Heyward-Bey?s.

Another objection: the word most often associated with Crabtree leading up to the draft was ?diva.? In this case, being a diva is not good. It means the kid has an attitude, needs special treatment, thinks he?s a superstar and may not buy into the team concept. Got that?

OK, here?s what Singletary said about diva.

?When you get great players, sometimes you get a bit of attitude with them. For us, on offense, a little bit of swagger is OK.?

The 49ers need swagger. The 49ers just got swagger. Another thing about divas. Rice was a diva. Don?t kid yourself and think he wasn?t. He was a superstar with a superstar attitude and to be that great he needed to believe he was special and he needed to be treated specially. The Niners couldn?t care less if Crabtree is a diva as long as he doesn?t start singing from ?Carmen? in the huddle.

And remember, Crabtree went much lower in the draft than anyone expected ? again thanks to the Raiders. When you get humiliated on national TV, you learn humility. You learn the world doesn?t care about your ego. Maybe this recent dose of humility will balance Crabtree?s diva-ness.

Finally, there is the question of fashion. Yes, fashion. When Crabtree came to the Niners for a face-to-face ? he said the Raiders never even invited him ? Singletary asked about his hobby and he said fashion is his hobby. This made Singletary, the manly man, pause. Singletary admitted this.

Asked about his fashion hobby over the phone, Crabtree told reporters, ?I feel like if I look good, I play good.?

Back to Rice. Before games, Walsh would watch Rice dress, watched as he put on his uniform down to that towel he kept in his belt. Everything had to be perfect. Walsh admired the precision of Rice?s uniform and understood Rice played well if he looked good. He was a soldier putting on his uniform. So, think of Crabtree the same way.

Someone asked Crabtree if he was offended the Raiders passed on him.

?They picked who they wanted,? he said, ?and the 49ers picked who they wanted.?

It?s like the Raiders hand-delivered Crabtree to San Francisco.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at blog.pressdemocrat.com/cohn. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at 521-5486 or lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.