During free agency of 2022, the 49ers signed a seldom used Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver in Ray-Ray McCloud to a two-year contract. McCloud, who was thought of as a gadget type of receiver, turned out to be a dynamic returner who gave the 49ers advantageous field position.
Ray-Ray had the second most punt return yardage in the NFL last season, including three returns over 20 yards. He even played the role of Deebo Samuel in a spot start, which led to a 71-yard touchdown run.
This season will be a contract year for McCloud. The 49ers drafted Ronnie Bell in the 7th round in 2023 and drafted Danny Gray in the third round during the 2022 draft. McCloud is likely battling another free agent to-be, Jauan Jennings, for a roster spot in 2024.
Experience: 5 accrued seasons
Weight: 190 lbs.
McCloud enters the final year of his two-year deal. His cap number in 2023 is $2.09 million. If, for whatever reason, the Niners felt the need to release McCloud, he’d cost $875,000 in dead money, but the team would end up saving $1.21 million. The only portion of his contract that was guaranteed was paid out in 2022.
What to expect in 2023
Based on their recent investments, the 49ers are planning for life without one of their core wideouts next year. McCloud played 461 snaps last year, with 296 of those coming on offense. There wasn’t a game where Ray-Ray saw the field for more than 30 snaps. That speaks to his role and how the offensive staff feels about him.
There’s no denying that McCloud proved to be a difference-maker on special teams. That should continue in ‘23. But a bigger output on offense may be difficult to come by for a few different reasons.
The 49ers must find out what they have in Gray. His opportunities will come before McCloud. That’s before factoring in the stars on an offense many believe is the deepest in the NFC, if not the NFL. When you get beyond that, a wideout like Jennings has already carved a lane out for himself. Jauan isn’t losing third down receptions to Ray-Ray.
What will it take for a McCloud return?
McCloud scored one touchdown on 21 targets a season ago. He’d have to up that number. Kyle Shanahan constantly mentions his wide receivers being able to contribute in multiple ways. McCloud is a bit limited due to his stature, so he must impress, almost in an exaggerated fashion, to stick around.
Ray-Ray’s yards per reception number (17.4) was impressive, but those opportunities were limited. Flashback to Week 6 against the Falcons, when Jimmy Garoppolo threw a deep post pattern to McCloud for a would-be touchdown. If McCloud wants another contract from the 49ers, those are the types of receptions he’ll have to haul in.
To be fair, McCloud also had a 35-yard return against Atlanta. A splash play every couple of games should be enough to entice the 49ers into giving McCloud another contract.