The 49ers’ 2022 NFL Draft selection of wide receiver Danny Gray made perfect sense, but he’ll nevertheless be under a ton of pressure when training camp begins.
San Francisco 49ers rookie wide receiver Danny Gray might stand out a bit more than the eight other first-year pros the team selected in the 2022 NFL Draft.
If for no other reason than his blazing-fast speed, a hot 4.33 40-yard time back at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine that helped him go late in Round 3 to the Niners at No. 105 overall.
In theory, Gray’s downfield presence should fully open up head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense, allowing quarterback Trey Lance to hit other receiving targets underneath as they’ll likely be facing one less defender, who in turn will be covering Gray deep.
Again, in theory.
It’s been easy to hype the former SMU standout because of his speed and his presumed niche within Shanahan’s offense. This was made easier by the fact Gray was one of the bigger standouts from San Francisco’s rookie minicamp earlier this offseason.
However, just because Gray shined in light of other first-year players, he still has a long way to go before proving he’ll make an impact this season.
Danny Gray already has to overcome injuries
At some point late during organized team activities, during one of the sessions not available to the media, Gray suffered a hamstring injury that forced him to leave those practices early, and he subsequently wasn’t available for the 49ers’ mandatory minicamp a couple of weeks later.
We’re far from labeling Gray as injury-prone here, but considering how hamstring issues can linger for months and sometimes years, coupled with the reality of Gray’s best asset being his speed, this particular development should be concerning.
Additionally, Gray’s minicamp absence led to the Niners fielding one of their offseason free-agent pickups, wide receiver and return specialist Ray-Ray McCloud, serving as Shanahan’s primary deep threat.
According to multiple reports, McCloud shined in this role:
McCloud, far more productive and experienced at the NFL level (obviously), might actually emerge as the deep-threat favorite over Gray to start the year, even if the rookie emerges from training camp fully healthy.
So, to spark that competition, Gray will have to resolve one of his bigger collegiate issues.
Danny Gray must prove to 49ers his hands aren’t an issue
Gray had plenty of intangibles that should have made him an early day-two NFL Draft choice at the least, yet aside from a few minor worry points, there’s one glaring weakness to his game.
Now, Gray somewhat hilariously punished himself for dropping a pass at rookie minicamp, answering by doing push-ups on the field in the wake of the drop. But it does cast some light on one of the problems he experienced back at SMU.
"In 2020, Danny Gray posted a drop rate of 8.3% (three drops on 36 catchable targets). More recently, in 2021 his drop rate spiked to 12.5% (seven drops on 56 catchable targets). Gray recorded 82 catches in his time at SMU for a catch rate of 66.7%."
Considering Gray is likely to be a gadget weapon early in his career, one of the few ways he can derail his ascent is to drop the few passes that end up coming his way. It might be forgivable if he was a high-volume receiver, but a high number of drops on few targets won’t do him any favors.
Especially with someone like McCloud looming over him for a role.
When training camp kicks off this week, and assuming he’s healthy, Gray will likely start off with the third-string unit, potentially sniffing time with the second-stringers here and there. And if his hands are an issue, Gray could potentially be relegated towards the back end of the depth chart.
As such, if there’s one goal for him to accomplish in camp, it’s to ensure he’s catching what’s thrown his way.