The question I haven’t seen answered in all the Michael Crabtree analysis is this, how much more money will he have to get to make this hold out worth it? If you examine it in terms of simple math rather than leagalese contract math (discounting various bonus triggers that change what is paid when) it goes like this: the contract on the table is reported as $20M/5years. That breaks down to an average of $4M/year. For some antiquated reason NFL players are given game checks 16 times over the course of the season. Each of Crabtree’s game checks should be ~$250,000. Right now the 49ers are pro-rating their offer so that every time Crabtree misses a game the offer is reduced by ~$250,000. So far he has “lost” ~$750 ,000. If you’re not yet sick to your stomach about a guy turning up his nose at that kind of money read on.
Crabtree has threatened to hold out the entire year and re-renter the draft next year. This plan seems to be based on the fact that he thinks he will be picked higher than he was this year and thus get more money. It is also possible that he believes that the amount of money available next year will get him a better deal. Again, how much more money will he need to get to make it worthwhile? Well for one he’d have to make up for sitting out this year. Essentially he’d have to make six years worth of salary in five years giving us a break even point of $24M ($4M/year x 6 years). But that’s not all.
According to the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) players can become free agents after five years of service time. That’s when big time players really cash in. Forget for a moment that we don’t know if Crabtree is Randy Moss or Carlos Rogers, he believes he’s a big time player which means whatever deal he gets will have to make up for the fact that he’s now delaying free agency and his big payday by another year. If you look at just the average of the top five cap numbers for wide receivers in 2008 ($9.74M) it means Crabtree would have a new break even number of $34M. If you consider the fact that salaries rise over time it's not crazy to think that number will be higher five years from next year so lets say, accounting for 6 years of salary inflation, he needs $40M to break even. Still this number is only what he would need to make up for missing this year. This is the “the plan didn’t really work and it’s kind of a wash” number. For this hold out to be considered a success he’d have to make a lot more than this.
Now, ready for what he’s allegedly asking? $40 million. That’s right, the guy picked tenth wants $40M. That’s about $2M more than the guy picked seventh, who plays the same position, got. But remember, Crabtree’s whole rationale for this hold out is that he should have been picked fifth.
Beyond the money though is another issue. How good can Crabtree be expected to be? The final answer is we have no way of knowing, but that answer’s no fun to analyze. Instead lets look at other players who have missed entire years. The two that spring to mind for me are Maurice Clarett and Mike Williams. If you don’t remember Mo C. he was a running back at Ohio State who had a great freshman year. He was so good that year he decided he should challenge the NFL rule that forces players to wait three years after high school to apply for the draft. When Clarett won a temporary injunction against the NFL Williams decided it would be a good idea to declare for the draft as well. In the end the NFL rule was upheld (thank you judge Sotamayor) and both players missed the entire 2004 season. In 2005 Williams was taken 10th overall and Clarett was taken 101st. Clarett, who turned down $413,000 in guaranteed money in favor of an incentive laden deal with no guarantees, didn’t make it through training camp and never played in the NFL. Williams ended his rookie year with 29 receptions and 1 touchdown. Not exactly what one looks for in the number 10 overall pick. The next year Williams had just 8 catches and 1 touchdown. In 2007 Williams split time between the Raiders and the Titans recording 7 receptions and 0 touchdowns. He has not played a down since then.
What does this mean for Michael Crabtree? Possibly nothing. Andre Smith, this year’s number six pick was the last player left holding out other than Crabtree. Smith finally reported to camp and was immediately lost for the year with a broken foot the next day. Smith was following the path laid out by 2002 number 6 overall pick Ryan Sims who held out for weeks and then was injured and lost for the year a couple weeks after reporting.
Beyond that sports landscape is littered with guys who thought they could do better. Matt Harrington was drafted by MLB teams four years in a row. He was initially a first rounder but found the offer of a paltry $4.9M to be too little. He played junior college ball, then independent ball and got a little worse every year. Now he works installing tires at Costco. The history of players who turn up their noses at not enough millions and skip a year is littered with stories of failure. In fact the only person I can think of who’s at least made a ton of money after sitting out is J.D. Drew and he at least played a year of high level indie ball while he was off denying the Phillies. But there is no high minor league for football. Crabtree gave up his eligibility for the closest thing to that when he left college. Besides that Crabtree has more to lose in terms of his rookie deal by playing this season in Canada or the UFL than by sitting out. The risk of injury is too great and of he doesn’t excel his stock will drop. Instead he’ll hope that his college resume will hold up through next April. That hope is all he’ll have since he won’t be allowed to work out for other teams before the draft. Here’s hoping the Niners will be in position to draft him again. And again, and again, and again.