It’s not easy to be a good return man in this league, and realistically, there aren’t many. It seems it’s even more difficult to find one. The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t seem to be quite sure if they do, even if Ray-Ray McCloud, whom they signed during training camp last year, had an overall solid season in 2020 that petered out as the year progressed.
Special teams coordinator Danny Smith acknowledged that, as always, they are looking at their options. Part of that is simply the necessity of the offseason process, setting up a return line. He was asked about specific options like running back Anthony McFarland and rookie defensive back Lamont Wade, though he only addressed it as a group.
“It’s a good point. We need options. We really do. Especially with the preseason games and stuff, those guys will get opportunities”, he told reporters, but the evaluation will have to wait. “It’s hard to judge those guys right now. We like their speed. We like their attention to detail. We like them knowing what we’re going”.
“But until we get into live situations, which we will be able to in the preseason, it’ll really help us in that evaluation”, he continued. “So I’m looking forward to that, and you’re right, those kind of options are nice to have, and they’ll get their opportunities and we’ll see how it is in a real live situation”.
As for McCloud, a sixth-round pick by the Buffalo Bills in 2018, he saw his most extensive playing time with the Steelers last season. He returned 29 punts for 298 yards, adding 28 kick returns for another 646 yards. Combined with his work on offense, he totaled more than 1000 all-purpose yards, quadrupling his previous career high.
But as mentioned, his numbers gradually lagged as the season progressed. Some of his best returns came in the early portions of the season. He still finished sixth in the NFL in kick return yards and eighth in average, as well as fourth in punt return yards and punt return average, but it would be premature to suggest that he’s locked himself into that job.
With that said, he was a refreshing change of pace from what Pittsburgh has dealt with in the return game for much of the past decade. The previous two years with Ryan Switzer as their primary kick returner left much to be desired, and most of his predecessors offered little in improvement.
While there was a flash in the pan or two—Chris Rainey actually did well as a kick returner his one year here, and Diontae Johnson made the All-Pro list in 2019—the Steelers have not had a steadily reliable return man since Antonio Brown, who actually made the Pro Bowl, primarily as a returner, in 2011.
McCloud should be the clear frontrunner, for now, to retain the role of return man, likely in both phases, but from the sounds of it, we will get a glimpse at some other options, at least in the preseason this year.