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No real winner in Crabtree ordeal, except maybe the draft process

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Thankfully, for all involved, the Michael Crabtree saga is finally over.

In the end, everyone is happy. The 49ers took the lead in the NFC West by going 3-1 without him (and could easily be 4-0), which no doubt helped expedite the Crabtree contract discussions after they had been stuck in neutral for so long. And now the 49ers get a receiver who, potentially, could make some plays for them down the stretch after what I expect to be a lengthy adjustment period. Crabtree is instantly $17 million richer (with the chance to get up to $40 million over six years), and is back on a football field after far too long away.

But did anyone really "win"? Not really. Rarely if ever does anyone benefit from such a prolonged impasse. Crabtree comes in vastly behind and has a rookie season that is largely lost. The 49ers lost valuable preseason and regular-season time trying to get the youngster implemented in their system. Nothing to be gained here.

First-round signings
Michael Crabtree, the 10th player taken in the 2009 draft, became the last rookie to sign a contract with his team. How does his contract compare to others? Complete first-round signings ...

In the end, Crabtree blinked, flying to San Francisco without the club's management being aware of it and triggering a series of meetings Tuesday and an all-night negotiating session to get the deal done. What did he gain? Well, it's nominal. He ended up with maybe a million more in guaranteed money -- but also lost out on valuable time getting a chance to start chipping away at some escalators in his contract. And even next season he will still be entering what amounts to his first real professional offseason, when it should have been his second, and thus a time when many players make a major leap. He gets the chance to exit the deal in five years rather than six if he performs at a Pro Bowl level in two of the first four seasons -- the 49ers' long-standing offer to him was for six years -- but it came at a real price.

What this entire ordeal truly revealed is that when it comes to the sanctity of the drafting process -- at the very heart of the NFL's competitive balance -- the collective bargaining agreement works. There are sufficient rules and regulations in place to eventually force the sides together, to provide ample incentives for the parties to strike a deal. There is a reason we don't see drafted players sitting out their entire rookie seasons (of course, the lack of any competitive league elsewhere on the planet helps as well; in hockey and basketball there is potential to play abroad, for example). The system works. In the end, the draft process is the winner here.

Think about it -- if there was not a limited window in which you could trade an un-signed draft pick's rights, we might still be speculating as to when a deal would get done. If there was not a mechanism in place stipulating that an unsigned pick loses a year of service if not signed by Week 10, then Crabtree's resolve might still be getting the better of him. If there was not, by and large, a respect for the slotting system in regard to the vast majority of rookie contracts signed in this league, then players might have a better case for demanding, and receiving, deals that far surpass those of players drafted ahead of them.

As I maintained all along, re-entering the draft, especially for a player with some of the injury concerns and maturity concerns connected to Crabtree, was never a viable option. The CBA makes it so. The only way a player in this situation generates any true leverage -- apart from his team tanking, perhaps -- is to sit out two entire years to become a free agent, but really, what will he have gained then, having wasted what could have been two productive and fiscally rewarding years?

I figured it might take until November for the sides to have the kind of rapidly fruitful meetings that took place this week, but whether it was the 11th hour or Week 5, there was no rational argument for going back in the draft, a fact not lost on agent Eugene Parker. It's a nice ploy, fine and dandy to float it, but there's nothing to back it up, and the draft rules are loaded with disincentives for doing so.

With stringent coach Mike Singletary at the helm, and that locker room fully behind him, Crabtree now has every incentive to get his butt in gear and immerse himself in workouts and the playbook. I can't foresee him making up for lost time this season, but if he can find a niche in certain special situations, work his way into a few packages, and display the requisite hunger, this could be a healthy marriage.

If Crabtree is the kind of player teams expect to get with the 10th overall pick, we won't hear much about the months he missed as his career blossoms. If he doesn't develop as planned, well, that's a different story.

Pats being aggressive on defense

Watching the Patriots play defense this season, you can't help but see a philosophical change there. No one has made much of it to this point, but the Pats have a much more risk-reward defense, blitzing with more abandon and playing a whole lot more man coverage than has been the norm under Bill Belichick.

For years, the Patriots were a team that dropped back linebackers in coverage, split the team into quarters and played a lot of Cover-4. With so much secondary help, corners like Asante Samuel could afford to gamble and jump some routes, because more guys were dropping back into coverage than were attacking the quarterback.

Now, the Pats are employing a lot more Cover-1, with a single high safety, and getting those backers moving forward. Watching them assault Joe Flacco last week, I couldn't help but think it looked like a Rex Ryan defense. You won't see the nine-man fronts and all-out blitzes like you would from Ryan, but it's not unusual to see six Patriot defenders rushing the passer, either. It's a fairly significant change, and seems to be the new M.O. there.

Make no mistake, Belichick forces his players to be comfortable playing various styles, and could easily toggle back into zone schemes. But for now he seems cool with his corners playing man with little support (the additions of big veteran corners Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs help in that regard).

Offensively, the vertical game many expected to see from the Patriots has not materialized yet. Joey Galloway, brought in to complement Randy Moss downfield, has not produced and was a healthy scratch last week (perhaps that might serve as a motivating force). Tom Brady has a woeful 40 passer rating on passes that travel 20 yards or more in the air (two completions on 16 attempts). As he continues to become more at ease with stepping up in the pocket and thrusting into his throws after missing all of last season with that knee injury, I'd anticipate a higher rate of return on the deep balls.

Chargers, Packers in deep trouble

Two teams with byes this week are rightfully mulling roster moves. San Diego and Green Bay are 2-2, but significant flaws have emerged in the first quarter of the season. It's awfully hard to make real changes to a football team so late in the season -- there is a reason the offseason is so long -- and rarely can a trade or signing in October reverse the issues.

But something has to give here.

For San Diego, counting on much from running back LaDainian Tomlinson or linebacker Shawne Merriman would not be advised (and watching the comments of general manager A.J. Smith through the offseason up through this week, neither player should extend a mortgage in the greater San Diego area). The injuries to the offensive line have limited the ability to run the ball inside, and LT is no longer a game-changer.

On defense, though, the problems run even deeper. The thinking was that getting Merriman back from injury would restore the onslaught of sacks and turnovers so vital to this unit. But he hasn't looked right on the field and is being used situationaly at best (this situation is reminiscent to what Merriman's friend LaVar Arrington went through as his tenure with Washington wound down). San Diego's defense can't get off the field.

The Chargers rank last in the NFL in number of drives allowed of at least 5 minutes, 25th in offensive points allowed, last in third-down conversions, and last in 10-play drives allowed. Their first-down rushing defense ranks 29th. Losing nose tackle Jamal Williams for the season was a nightmare, and the fact that two non-competitive teams sit below them in the AFC West helps, but this team has not looked good against physical opponents, and there's not much you can do in-season to rectify that.

Smith is as shrewd as they come, and he has no time for sentimentality. His comments during Merriman's recent off-field troubles were less than glowing, and I don't rule out him doing something to alter the personality of the club. The Chargers will be an interesting team to watch as the Oct. 20 trade deadline approaches.

Green Bay's concerns are deep along the offensive line, which is exactly where you don't want them to be. Chemistry and reps and symmetry are a big part of what makes lines great, and you don't get that by shuffling around mid-season due to injury and poor play. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is getting sacked at an alarming rate (20 times already, including an astounding 11 on first down; eight total sacks allowed is the league average). And in the running game, they aren't generating a sufficient push.

The Packers hope to get left tackle Chad Clifton back from his high-ankle sprain after this week's bye, but even when he was healthy the tackle play was shoddy. Long-time right tackle Mark Tauscher, a street free agent, is an option, and they have been in talks with him this week, but he has been out of the game a long time. If the Packers don't figure something out during their hiatus, then I'm thinking that the team I picked to make a deep playoff run is going to have a tough time even reaching the postseason in the competitive NFC North.

Quick-hitters

» The Cleveland Browns have scored 42 offensive points through four games, and have allowed an NFL-high 48 points off turnovers. That's how you go 0-4, folks. Under the circumstances, though, I thought they made a heck of a trade dealing malcontent Braylon Edwards and getting back four viable assets in return. That's how you start to rebuild and load up on picks in certain rounds, which gives you the flexibility to move up and grab a player as well, if need be.

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» I don't imagine some of Edwards's issues -- dropped passes, attitude concerns -- suddenly go away with a new uniform, but he got the fresh start he wanted, so maybe he will prove me wrong.

» Seems to me not enough has been made nationally about linebacker Calvin Pace returning from suspension for the Jets this weekend. Ryan just got his most dynamic front-seven player back, and after watching what he's done with guys like Adalius Thomas and Terrell Suggs over the years, this should be fun to see (and not so fun for opposing quarterbacks).

» Somebody tap me on the shoulder when the Redskins find a No. 2 receiver. They haven't had one since the glory days of Rod "50/50" Gardner, which is pretty scary on many counts when you think about it.

» The hiring of Sherm Lewis as an offensive consultant by Washington this week now gives the team a long-time West Coast offensive play-caller and coordinator on staff, something they didn't have at the start of the week, and something they would desperately need should head coach Jim Zorn get fired midseason. Such a move would not surprise many around the league at this point, and I could see defensive coordinator Greg Blache eventually serving as interim head coach, with Lewis the offensive coordinator and secondary coach Jerry Gray, whom the Redskins blocked from interviewing for the Houston defensive coordinator job in the offseason, as the defensive coordinator.

» With Crabtree coming back, other clubs expect San Francisco to try to deal a depth receiver, with Jason Hill being a possibility.

» You have to think the Ravens will restore some balance to their offense. Coordinator Cam Cameron is as good as they come, but watching him call passes on 30 of the team's first 38 offensive snaps against the Patriots was shocking. That three-headed monster at running back needs some cookies.

» Free agent wide receivers Yamon Figurs and Jordan Kent have been generating some interest in recent weeks. I wouldn't be surprised to see them signed this month.

Week 5 picks

I went 9-5 last week, 41-21 on the year. This week, give me the Ravens, Bills, Panthers, Steelers, Cowboys, Giants, Eagles, Vikings, 49ers, Cardinals, Patriots, Jags, Colts and Jets.

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