49ers roster: Ray-Ray McCloud is more than just a return specialist

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud (14) Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud (14) Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports /

The 49ers placed an emphasis on beefing up special teams, leading to Ray-Ray McCloud joining the squad as a free agent. But he can be much more than that.

In 2021, the San Francisco 49ers’ average starting field position was on their own 26.9-yard line, which ranked 29th-best in the NFL.

Not great, for those who are wondering.

Considering the problems on special teams the Niners had last season, it’s no surprise a good chunk of offseason efforts entering 2022 focused on revamping this unit, headlined by bringing aboard former Seattle Seahawks special teams coordinator Brian Schneider to help comb through the mess.

One of Schneider’s preferred targets? Former Pittsburgh Steelers return specialist Ray-Ray McCloud.

Ray-Ray McCloud Kick & Punt Returns Table
GamesPunt ReturnsKick Returns
2 yrsPIT327676650579.963142204922.625223
1 yrBUF1014200135.011801818.0780
1 yrCAR6010820398.2817403121.82560

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 7/4/2022.

McCloud, who broke into the league back in 2018 as a sixth-round NFL Draft pick of the Buffalo Bills, found his footing as a top-quality returner the last two seasons with Pittsburgh.

Now, as a member of the red and gold, McCloud will look to bolster what has been a primary San Francisco weakness ever since Kyle Shanahan took over head-coaching duties in 2017: the return game.

Yet McCloud could feasibly offer up much more than that.

Why Ray-Ray McCloud latches on as a 49ers offensive contributor in 2022

The 25-year-old McCloud didn’t make much of a dent, offensively, during his first three seasons in the league. In 2021, however, that changed a bit with him recording a career-best 39 receptions for 277 yards.

Still-modest numbers, yet they deserve to be mentioned.

McCloud might not have the reputation of being a true speed threat. But, as evidenced by getting some increased looks during 49ers offseason workouts thus far, him getting behind the defense became something of a regularity:

The Niners spent a third-round draft pick on the speedy wide receiver out of SMU, Danny Gray, who figures to be this gadget-type player. But with Gray being, well… a rookie, the elder McCloud could feasibly make a dent as a downfield threat right away.

Read More: How Kyle Shanahan gets the most out of Ray-Ray McCloud

That could put him in favor as one of the top four options on San Francisco’s depth chart.

Why Ray-Ray McCloud is limited to 49ers return duties only

It’s one thing for McCloud to impress in the padless practices the 49ers have had so far, especially when he primarily went up against second-team defenses.

It’ll be far more challenging when he’s lined up opposite the starters, particularly when they’re allowed to engage in press contact at the line of scrimmage, thereby bumping the smallish 5-foot-9, 190-pound receiver off his routes.

On top of that, McCloud has had issues fumbling the ball, too, having four such gaffes last season. And while these mistakes can be partially blamed on him trying to do a bit too much in the return game, it’s still safe to question whether or not he’s reliable with the ball in his hands.

As far as fumbling, there are few worse things to get a player in Shanahan’s proverbial doghouse than that.

Predicting Ray-Ray McCloud’s role with 49ers in 2022

The Niners inked McCloud to a two-year deal worth up to $4 million, and he’ll cost San Francisco nearly $2 million in dead money if he’s cut prior to the regular season kicking off.

Simply put, McCloud isn’t going anywhere.

What’s more fluid, though, is the kind of role McCloud will play for the 49ers this season and potentially beyond. While it’s already all but guaranteed he’ll be the primary kick- and punt-return specialist this season, it’ll be interesting to see where he’s ranked on the wide-receiving depth chart.

All-Pro Deebo Samuel headlines this group, understandably, and he’ll be supported by both Gray and Brandon Aiyuk.

Read More: Predicting Trey Lance’s 5 favorite passing targets in 2022

Third-year pro Jauan Jennings is squarely in the mix for the No. 3 spot, leaving arguably two more openings on the 53-man roster, one of which will go to McCloud.

McCloud, at least out of the gate, might assume that deep-threat role over Gray, which might not result in a ton of targets but is nevertheless vital as a component to open things up for the rest of the offense.

Still, if McCloud is able to replicate the kind of limited efforts he had during offseason workouts, it wouldn’t be shocking if he winds up having a career-type year on offense, pairing nicely with his special teams work.

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