Danny Gray began his NFL career inactive in Week 1, before playing 13 snaps combined in the next two games. Gray, who suffered a hip injury, ended up missing practice time during September that set him behind the 8-ball.
Gray’s luck didn’t get any better as the season went along. He suffered a sprained ankle during pre-game warmups against the Chargers in November. Statistically, Gray caught one pass for ten yards and had a carry that went for nine yards. That’s it. That was Gray’s rookie year.
The 24-year-old was known for his speed coming out of SMU. He felt like a perfect complement to the 49ers weapons, specifically Trey Lance. But when Lance was injured early in the season, Gray’s ability to be a deep threat went out of the window when Jimmy Garoppolo was back under center.
So, what can we expect from Gray in his second year? That may depend on the quarterback.
Experience: 1 accrued season
Weight: 186 pounds
Gray enters the second season of his rookie contract. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent in 2026. His cap number in 2023 is $1.14 million. Based on where he was drafted, Gray’s contract won’t exceed $1.5 million in base salary as a rookie.
How he can improve in 2023
Gray finished the season playing 131 snaps, which included 35 special teams snaps. He only had three games where he surpassed double-digit snaps in a game, and most of those came once the game was in hand. How can Gray improve? By playing, which is the case for any young player.
The 49ers must carve out a role for Gray. They need to figure out how to get him on the field. At his weight, playing in the slot and blocking may be out of the equation. But you can’t do what Kyle Shanahan and the offensive staff did to Gray as a rookie, which was taking a deep play-action shot seemingly every time he was in the game.
With Jauan Jennings and Ray-Ray McCloud scheduled to be free agents after this year, it’s time to find out what Gray can do. At SMU, he was at his best on timing routes. By that, I mean going in motion and running a 12-yard out route. Defenses were forced to respect his speed and that would open up intermediate routes for Gray.
Timing routes and deep crossing routes should be Gray’s forte. Assuming he got stronger during his first full offseason as a pro, so he can play more would help. But, from a talent standpoint, Gray has Jennings and McCloud beat. But Jennings is an unbelievable blocker, a machine on third downs, and has proven to be consistent.
The problem is Gray was drafted before the team acquired Christian McCaffrey, who is now the focal point of the offense and bumps everyone else down on the totem pole. Does that mean Gray is no longer in the plans for the offense? We’ll find out this season.