There may be some out there who wonder why the Pittsburgh Steelers still have Ray-Ray McCloud on the 53-man roster, given that he doesn’t contribute a great deal to the offense as the fifth wide receiver. That wasn’t ever why he made the team in the first place, though; it was for his return ability, and he has been having success in that area this season.
As I write this, he ranks third in both punt return and kick return yardage, averaging 10.8 yards on the former and 26.6 yards on the latter. That hasn’t translated into Pittsburgh averaging good starting field position, for reasons beyond his control—they rank 29th in average starting field position at their own 25—but it would be even worse, otherwise. And he’s been noticed by his opponents.
Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio, for example, offered some praise for the fourth-year veteran, speaking to reporters on Wednesday. “He’s a really good punt returner and kickoff returner”, he said, via transcript. “We have to do a good job covering, but part of the coverage is the kicks too—both the punt and the kickoff. We have to get good kicks to start the coverage and then we have to do a good job covering”.
The Steelers first signed McCloud on August 21 last year, late in training camp, yet he showed enough in a couple of short weeks, without the benefit of preseason action, to earn a spot on the 53-man roster—as one of just five wide receivers, no less—due to his return ability, making the team over others like Deon Cain and Ryan Switzer.
Originally a sixth-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills, he spent his rookie season there, but found himself in Carolina a year later. This is the first time he has been on the same team for multiple seasons, and it’s no coincidence that it’s also the place where he has performed best, the latter leading to the former.
His return numbers were awful as a rookie. They improved slightly in 2018 in Carolina, averaging 8.2 yards per punt return and 21.8 yards per kick return, but those are not the numbers you use to justify keeping a specialist return man. It also didn’t help that he fumbled five times in his first two seasons—though he’s also fumbled three times since arriving in Pittsburgh, including once already this year, on offense.
Still, since coming to the Steelers, he is averaging 10.4 yards per punt return and 23.9 yards per kick return, quite solid numbers, especially relative to what the team has been getting in recent years, especially in the kick return game.
Diontae Johnson was a very promising punt returner as a rookie, but he quickly became too important to play there, and got injured in the second game of last season returning a punt. That’s when McCloud was put on punts in addition to kicks, and he and the Steelers haven’t looked back since. But hopefully Fangio and the Broncos will be on Sunday as he races into the end zone on what would be his first career touchdown of any kind.