The 49ers inked former Steelers return specialist Ray-Ray McCloud in NFL free agency, but Kyle Shanahan may opt to have McCloud do more on offense, too.
For the most part, the San Francisco 49ers’ actions in NFL free agency were limited, the only big-ticket signing being cornerback Charvarius Ward, who significantly upgrades an otherwise questionable defensive backfield.
Many of the other moves made by general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan were intended to bulk up a specific area of weakness last year, special teams, including signing former Indianapolis Colts All-Pro safety George Odum and former Green Bay Packers linebacker Oren Burks.
McCloud, who led the NFL with 38 punt returns and 367 yards last season, is expected to vastly improve a Niners return game that prompted their offense to start drives, on average, at their own 26.9-yard line, fourth worst in the league.
Yet with some questionable depth at wide receiver behind the tandem of Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, it wouldn’t be shocking at all to see Shanahan use McCloud in more ways than just a return specialist.
Doing so would certainly help maximize the two-year deal San Francisco is giving him.
How Ray-Ray McCloud can impact 49ers offense
Shanahan does have one key aspect of McCloud’s game that worries him. As the San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch pointed out, McCloud has a bit of a fumbling issue, four on 41 offensive touches a year ago, which is quite a problem.
McCloud admitted, via Branch, it was the result of trying to do too much with his carries instead of taking what yardage was given.
Yet the 49ers are hoping McCloud can be explosive. It’s one of the reasons, in light of his notable speed on special teams, Shanahan would be wise to use McCloud as a legitimate receiving weapon.
McCloud had 39 receptions for 277 yards in a career-best year for Pittsburgh in 2021, averaging 7.1 yards per catch. And while the 5-foot-9, 190-pound target might be a bit undersized for full-time duties, Shanahan has never wholly prioritized size over speed.
Plus, it’s the way Shanahan might use McCloud in a Samuel-like way, as displayed in the play below:
The Niners have a big-slot option in third-year wideout Jauan Jennings, but Jennings’ speed isn’t something that’ll stretch Shanahan’s offense. No, Jennings is more of a big target on third downs, little more.
What’s needed is for a field-stretching weapon to open things up for quarterback Trey Lance, the kind of player who can draw one or even two defensive backs way down the field while opening up better opportunities for receiving targets like Samuel, Aiyuk and tight end George Kittle.
It might be a gadget-like usage for McCloud. But even in that regard, he can provide a much-needed spark, especially now with San Francisco having a quarterback capable of making those kinds of throws.
McCloud has already proven he can be a versatile tool in the offense, albeit with limited opportunities with the Steelers.
But it’ll be his way of providing some down-the-field thump that’ll truly make him a serviceable weapon to open things up for the 49ers’ other options.