The 49ers gave their special teams and offense a jolt Thursday with the signing of wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud, who will most likely step right in as the team’s top return specialist.
McCloud (5-10, 180) led the league in punt return yards in 2021, totaling 367 yards on 38 returns (9.7 average, 23 long). He ranked fourth in kick return yardage with 776 on 35 attempts (22.2 average) with a long of 40 yards. McCloud also played a role on offense, catching a career-high 39 passes for 277 yards.
McCloud will bring some excitement to the return game and offense, as can be seen in his highlights below.
McCloud has had an interesting journey throughout his football career, which saw him go from being a high school star in Tampa to some ups and downs in college at Clemson before settling in as a return threat in the NFL. Here are five things to know about McCloud as he begins his time with the 49ers.
* After a journeyman start in the pros, McCloud hoped to stay in Pittsburgh in 2022. But things didn’t work out that way: McCloud entered the league as a sixth-round selection of the Buffalo Bills in the 2018 NFL Draft but lasted just one season before being waived in August of 2019. He had a brief stint as a return specialist with the Carolina Panthers in 2019 before heading back to Buffalo to join the practice squad, then he caught on with the Steelers in 2020 as their return specialist while also contributing more on offense than he did with the Bills and Panthers.
McCloud expressed a desire in February to re-sign with the Steelers and continue to play for head coach Mike Tomlin.
“I don’t see myself anywhere else,” McCloud said, per Steelers Depot. “The Steelers treated me like family the day I walked through the door. I know it’s a business but I don’t want to play for anybody else but Coach Tomlin.”
In the end, McCloud wound up heading out of Pittsburgh to start a new chapter with the 49ers, where he’ll likely be doing many of the same things he did with the Steelers.
* A highly prolific high school player: McCloud starred as a running back at Sickles High School in Tampa, setting a new Hillsborough County career rushing record of 5,765 rushing yards and 58 touchdowns. McCloud was the 2014 winner of the Guy Toph Award, a prestigious yearly honor that has been given since 1939 to a senior player from Hillsborough County that stands out on the field and in the classroom. Other notable players to win the award include wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Andre Caldwell and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves.
“He’s as a good a player as I’ve seen in my 41 years in this county,” Hillsborough High School coach Earl Garcia said of McCloud in 2014, per the Tampa Bay Times.
McCloud was rated as one of the top 100 recruits in the country as a senior and thing to attend Clemson over Alabama and others.
* He did a bit of everything in college, including defense: At Clemson, McCloud had 127 catches for 1,226 yards and four touchdowns, 18 carries for 106 yards, 50 punt returns for 485 yards and one touchdown, and eight kick returns for 235 yards before entering the NFL Draft after his junior season in 2017. Perhaps the most intriguing moment of McCloud’s college career was when he was called upon to play cornerback in a 2017 game vs. NC State.
With injury issues leaving the Tigers thin at cornerback, McCloud stepped in late in the game to play a role in sealing a 38-31 win. Fortunately, McCloud had been getting looks at cornerback in practice before needing to deliver in a game situation.
“He’s earned it,” head coach Dabo Swinney said, per the Greenville News. “It’s not like he hasn’t practiced. He’s worked at it. He’s demonstrated his confidence to us in practice. It was a situation of need and we just felt like we needed a veteran guy who kind of knows the situation.”
* A major blunder-turned-learning experience: McCloud butted heads with Swinney at times while at Clemson, with one particular play serving as a major source of Swinney’s ire. During a game against Troy in 2016, McCloud broke free for what would have been a punt return for a touchdown, but he tossed the ball to the turf before crossing the goal line.
An article by ESPN in 2017 pointed at that play as the type of thing Swinney tried to knock out of McCloud’s game.
“He was undisciplined, and he just wanted to be an athlete,” Swinney said. “Eventually he found out he wasn’t going to be successful that way.”
McCloud had another chance to score on a punt return in that 2017 game against NC State. He didn’t let that opportunity slip away, holding onto the ball tightly until he was in the end zone.
“He’ll be the first to tell you: I’ve been in his grits since the day he got here,” Swinney said. “He and I have had our moments. But I just want him to be great. I want him to reach his potential.”
* More McClouds on the horizon: Maybe Ray-Ray won’t be the last member of his family to play in the NFL. It’s already a certainty he won’t be the last McCloud to play for Swinney at Clemson.
Ray-Ray’s brother Kobe was a three-star linebacker recruit last year at Tampa Gaither High School, and he decided to sign with Clemson as part of their 2022 recruiting class. He’ll be one of two McClouds playing college football next year, as Ray-Ray and Kobe’s brother Jordan is entering his junior season as a quarterback at the University of Arizona.
Jordan started his career at the University of South Florida and played in 20 games there before transferring to Arizona. He started two games for the Wildcats in 2021 before suffering a season-ending leg injury.
With the hiring of Brian Schneider as their new special teams coordinator, the San Francisco 49ers could be in the market for a new returner. Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud led the NFL in kick and punt return yards (1,143), and the 49ers might be looking to add the impending unrestricted free agent. “Pittsburgh has contacted McCloud’s representation to express a strong interest in re-signing the veteran, according to a source close to the situation,” wrote CBS Sports’ Cody Benjamin, “but at least six other teams — including playoff contenders in the 49ers and Packers — have their sights set on
The San Francisco 49ers are signing former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver and special teams standout Ray-Ray McCloud to a two-year deal, per Jeremy Fowler of ESPN. McCloud led the NFL in kick and punt return yards (1,143) in 2021. WR/return specialist Ray-Ray McCloud is signing with the #49ers on a two-year deal, per source.McCloud led NFL in punt return yards (367) and also caught 39 passes for the Steelers last year.— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN)
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