SANTA CLARA — This summer has been unlike any other during Michael Crabtree's four years with the San Francisco 49ers.
He's actually played in a preseason game.
Crabtree was in the starting lineup for San Francisco's exhibition opener last week against Minnesota, a sign he's farther along this year than at this point during any of his first three seasons. The wide receiver missed most of training camp and did not play in the preseason the past two years because of injuries, and he didn't join the 49ers until October of his rookie season of 2009 after a long contract impasse.
After leading the 49ers (No. 4 in the AP Pro32) with 72 receptions for 874 yards last season, Crabtree is getting ahead of the game this time around as a key figure in a passing offense that has added several talented targets.
The Niners have seen a different kind of Crabtree this summer and have been encouraged by his gradual development into a top-flight wideout. That's something San Francisco expected from Crabtree after the team selected him with the 10th overall pick of the 2009 draft.
Crabtree injured his leg during the first practice of training camp in July and missed almost two weeks of practices. But unlike previous summers, he has come back strong and is making an impression.
"Mike's having a really good camp, and it's great to have him back out there," 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Wednesday. "He was playing last year on a bad wheel and he battled his way through it. He's much healthier this year, and that's allowing him to develop as a player. I think we're seeing that in this camp. He's really dialed in to what we're doing."
Teammates and coaches say that Crabtree is faster and more focused this year after undergoing offseason surgery on a troublesome right foot that has hampered his effectiveness throughout his career.
That injury didn't stop Crabtree from finishing with career-best receiving numbers last season, even though he was a marked man in a passing offense that ranked 29th in the NFL. No other wide receiver on the San Francisco roster finished with more than 20 receptions.
Even after the team signed veteran receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham in free agency, then used its first-round draft pick on rookie receiver A.J. Jenkins, the 49ers still consider Crabtree as their go-to wideout.
He's taking that responsibility to heart. Crabtree spent much of the offseason at team headquarters in California instead of at his home in Texas and says his "strength, speed, power and quickness" are now better than ever before in his career. He also better understands San Francisco's system after playing for three different offensive coordinators in his first three seasons.
"I've grown a lot, and each year I'm getting better and better and stronger and stronger and learning how to be a pro," Crabtree said. "Every day I come out here I'm looking to do something new, not the same old routes I've been doing the whole camp or even last year. I'm just really trying to get better and do something new, fit in with the rest of the guys and make some plays."