The 49ers brought Danny Gray in via the 2022 NFL Draft for his speed, but that lone asset might not be good enough anymore.
If you travel back to April of 2022 and revisit the second of two third-round picks the San Francisco 49ers had in their NFL Draft class that year, former SMU wide receiver Danny Gray seemed to be an excellent grab at the time. Especially in light of the Niners using yet another Round 3 selection a few picks before in Tyrion Davis-Price.
Despite questionable hands in college, the 6-foot and 200-pound wideout was a speedster and recorded a 4.32 40-yard time at the NFL Scouting Combine the previous March.
It was clear why San Francisco was drafting Gray. He was going to be the deep, field-stretching threat to unlock the 49ers offense, particularly with a newly minted starter, strong-armed quarterback in Trey Lance, taking over under center that season.
Early on, it looked promising, too. Lance and Gray developed a bit of a preseason connection, including this long touchdown during the exhibition phase:
What was expected to be an intriguing and potent combination ultimately fell flat early in the regular season when Lance suffered a broken ankle in Week 2 and was done for the year.
In his stead, two less-than-strong-armed quarterbacks, Jimmy Garoppolo and Brock Purdy, finished off the year under center. Rather than attempt deep passes, both Garoppolo and Purdy tended to thrive on passes less than 20 yards from the line of scrimmage.
Gray's rookie-year stat line was not surprising: one catch on seven targets for 10 yards.
Later in the year, head coach Kyle Shanahan revealed why Gray had fallen out of favor on the depth chart.
“He’s just got to continue to be more consistent, be able to do everything down in and down out,” Shanahan said, via NBC Sports Bay Area. “You never know what plays you're going to be in there on.”
Shanahan eluded to being a better blocker, running different routes and the like.
So, if Gray can't improve upon those areas in year two, his roster spot could be in serious jeopardy.
What does Danny Gray have to do to make 49ers' 53-man roster in 2023?
Gray, whose primary strength would have made him a niche weapon and little else, is already staring at a fairly deep and talented wide receiver room.
And a quarterback room that is likely to see Purdy, not Lance as the team's starter this season.
The first four spots on the receiving depth chart are effectively taken:
- Deebo Samuel
- Brandon Aiyuk
- Jauan Jennings
- Ray-Ray McCloud
Assuming Shanahan wants to keep six wideouts on the 53-man roster, Gray will be competing with the likes of Chris Conley, Tay Martin, Willie Snead IV and the up-and-coming rookie, Ronnie Bell, among others.
Gray has very little special teams versatility, and that will hurt him. What could assist him, though, is if he's able to improve his previously lackluster route-running capabilities, shows a serious willingness to block and expands his route tree.
Even that might not be enough to ensure the third-round pick survives post-preseason roster cuts, but it would be an excellent direction to pursue in light of what was otherwise a disappointing rookie year.