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James McCray adjusting to NFL life from Division II football

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Among their UDFAs, the San Francisco 49ers signed a development safety prospect, James "L.J." McCray. He is a long shot to make the roster, but he could work his way up like other 49ers UDFAs.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers head into training camp with a few players that will have long odds of making the roster. Most of us will pick one or two players we think can beat the odds, but more than likely, most of these guys will end up as free agents or on the practice squad. As we know, KSWOF remains strong.

One interesting candidate KSWOF candidate is safety James McCray. I bring him up now because 49ers.com has an interesting article about the rookie. The 49ers signed McCray as an undrafted free agent out of Division II Catawba College, but it turns out they might have had an eye on him for a while. The 49ers.com article mentions how defensive line coach Jim Tomsula also attended Catawba. Tomsula returned for the team's Senior night game in 2012, when McCray would have been wrapping up his junior season. Tomsula provided some advice to McCray, and I'm guessing remembered him a year and a half later when the 49ers were looking to sign undrafted free agents.

McCray is in a tough position as a UDFA, but the 49ers have a track record of internal promotion that might have been part of the draw for McCray. The 49ers have seen guys like Alex Boone, Tramaine Brock, Tony Jerod-Eddie, and others make the climb from UDFA to practice squad to 53-man roster. And in the cases of Boone and Brock, into the starting lineup. When someone can promote that kind of internal advancement, be it a sports team or a non-sports business, that can be appealing.

Although McCray is a long-shot for a spot on the 53-man roster, he does benefit from playing a position that has depth that isn't exactly inspiring. Craig Dahl and C.J. Spillman work primarily as special teamers. Dahl has struggled when replacing Eric Reid. Spillman gets work in the 3-safety sets, but not much beyond that. Spillman is a special teams ace, and it seems unlikely that he would be surpassed by McCray. Dahl is also prominently featured on special teams, and did take a pay cut this year.

Vic Fangio was asked about McCray during minicamp. He said:

“He’s done well for a small school guy. He’s got good ability. He’s got good speed and he’s tough. Shows some instincts. He’s got to learn a lot. And that can be a slow process at times for these guys. But, I do like what he’s shown and he’s got some potential.”

That reads a little bit like what Greg Roman had to say about quarterback Kory Faulkner. I think we end up seeing both of them on the practice squad, and maybe one or both develops into some kind of long term option down the road. Faulkner won't be supplanting Colin Kaepernick anytime soon, but he could very well develop into a serviceable backup with the 49ers. McCray probably has a better shot at a roster spot than Faulkner, and even that is pretty slim. But the 49ers safety depth is limited, and they could be looking for long-term options sooner rather than later. I'm not going to hold me breath, as these are basically lottery tickets, but the odds are probably a bit better than those in the Powerball.