Mile High Sports

A better fit for the Broncos: Michael Crabtree vs. Emmanuel Sanders

Oct 11, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders receiver Michael Crabtree (15) is defended by Denver Broncos cornerback Bradley Robey (29) at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As 2018 NFL free agency continues to shake up rosters, intriguing options for the Denver Broncos continue to emerge. As the Oakland Raiders continue their pursuit of Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson, the team has decided to move on from Michael Crabtree, according to Adam Schefter.

Crabtree’s release means a valuable receiving asset is available for the Denver Broncos to approach. While Denver already has Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders as their two main aerial options, Crabtree could be an intriguing replacement for Sanders, who turns 31 on March 17 and carries a seven-figure cap hit over each of the next two seasons.

Here are the pros and cons to the notion of replacing Sanders with Crabtree to the 2018 Denver Broncos roster.

Pros

A Prolific Upgrade at the Right Time

Michael Crabtree had two of the best seasons of his career in 2016 and ’17. His production in Oakland has been phenomenal since leaving the San Francisco 49ers in 2014. In his six seasons with the 49ers, Crabtree accumulated 26 touchdowns. In three years with the Raiders, he nearly matched that total (25) in half the time. He has been the most productive Raiders wide receiver since arriving three years ago. According to the numbers, the Denver Broncos would be getting Crabtree at the peak of his career. Additionally, they would be getting a statistical upgrade from Emmanuel Sanders, who has underperformed compared to Crabtree over the last two seasons. In 2016 and ’17 combined, Crabtree caught more passes (131) than Sanders (125), had more total yards (1,621 to 1,587), and had more touchdowns (16 to 7).

A More Physically Imposing Player

To put it simply, Crabtree outmuscles Sanders. He is 6-foot-1, 214 pounds and can go head-to-head with any of the most physical corners in the NFL. He is capable of catching the deep ball over the top, or can truck his way past defenders on the short pass over the middle. Sanders is only 5-foot-11, 180 pounds. While he does have blistering speed in the slot, flat or open field, he cannot outmuscle defenders in the air like Crabtree can. The more time Sanders spends in the slot, the more punishment he takes. Sanders missed four games and started just 11 in 2017 because of injury. Crabtree missed one game in 2017 with a chest injury and was suspended for a game due to his role in an on-field fight with Aqib Talib. (And now that Talib is in Los Angeles, there would be less concern about any locker-room friction.)

A Cheap(er) but Effective Option, Plus Picks

Crabtree signed a four-year, $34-million contract with the Raiders. In 2018, Crabtree will earn a base salary of $7 million while carrying a cap hit of $7.7 million. Crabtree could land in Denver at a competitive price. Sanders, meanwhile, will cost Denver $10.937 million in 2018 and $12.937 million in 2019. The Broncos can get out of Sanders’ contract in 2019 (but carry $2.6 million of dead cap). A trade would need to be on the table for this season, where his dead cap hit would be north of $5 million. Sanders was the topic of on-again, off-again trade rumors this offseason, so it’t not outside the question. An ideal scenario for Denver (assuming they want out of Sanders’ contract) would be to find a partner (who doesn’t want Crabtree) willing to give up a late-round pick for Sanders. The Broncos also created $12.4 million in 2018 cap space by converting $16 million of Von Miller’s $18.5 million base salary into a signing bonus. They could use some this extra cap space to sign Crabtree.

Cons

Out with the Old and in with the. . . Slightly Less Old

Sanders turns 31 this Saturday, March 17. That is relatively old for NFL receivers. Considering the physical toll Sanders has taken playing in the NFL for eight seasons, the Broncos could look to go younger and fresher. They would not necessarily get that from Crabtree, who is almost exactly six months younger than Sanders and has played nine NFL seasons. Crabtree also has one more full year of NFL wear and tear on his body, having entered the league one year ahead of Sanders.

Losing a Player with an Elite Pedigree

Regardless of his down performance in 2017 (which could be blamed in large part on the lackluster quarterback play around him), Sanders was an integral part of the Broncos’ championship season in 2015. He and Demaryius Thomas led the team in receiving touchdowns with six apiece. He caught 76 passes for 1,135 yards that year, one of three 1,000-yard seasons with Denver. Sanders is also a two-time Pro Bowl nominee. Crabtree, who has no Pro Bowl nominations and a Super Bowl runner-up, would have some massive shoes to fill.

Crabtree has Bad Blood with, well, Everyone

Crabtree has a reputation for being a hothead. He’s the type of player you love to hate unless he’s on your team. He is the NFL’s version of Draymond Green — a gritty, physical player who plays borderline dirty and has his share of scuffles with opposing teams. One of Crabtree’s most notorious skirmishes came against the Broncos in Week 12 last season. Crabtree and former Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib blocked each other out of bounds during a Marshawn Lynch rush. Talib ended up ripping Crabtree’s gold chain off his neck and the two went to blows. Even though Talib is now with the Los Angeles Rams, there could still be some tumultuous relations between Crabtree and Broncos players loyal to Talib. Getting over that incident (and others through the years with Talib / Denver) might be too big a hurdle.

Implications

Whether the Broncos pull the trigger on Michael Crabtree or keep Emmanuel Sanders, they are in prime position to improve their offense after landing Case Keenum in the free agency and holding the fifth overall pick in the first round of the NFL Draft. If the Broncos do chase Crabtree, those AFC West matchups next season could be heated, to say the least.