It hardly registered as a blip on my Steelers radar when the team signed WR Raymond "Ray-Ray" McCloud lll last week as a free agent. Why would it? Journeymen free agents are routinely brought in for workouts, and signed to league minimum deals to basically act as a placeholder until a roster lock recovers from a minor nagging injury.
When a player like McCloud signs on the dotted line, seldom does it move the pay attention needle on the dial. I knew that Ryan Switzer was nursing yet another lower leg injury, so it made sense for the Steelers to bring in somebody capable of keeping the Steelers QBs on the depth chart stretched out, and assist the special teams as they work on blocking for and covering kicks.
Then a funny thing happened on the way to McCloud being run into the ground as a afterthought of a camp body. McCloud showed up and started making splash plays once his feet touched the field. Similar to the unbelievable success story of Devlin "Duck" Hodges last year, McCloud somehow failed to get the memo that he was nothing more than camp fodder, choosing instead to ball out and leave it all on the field. Let the chips fall where they may.
I am sure the small pool of reporters actually allowed to watch practice had to double check their notes trying to confirm who the diminutive receiver was that was making some impressive receptions and actually took a kick return to the house for a touchdown.
McCloud has made everybody take notice with his performance thus far in his limited opportunities, and has proven impossible to ignore.
That brings us to the question at hand, What now? Do the Steelers have room for, or even need for that matter, two slot receivers with similar size and abilities. We have seen this storyline play out before.
A couple of seasons ago the Steelers faced the same scenario trying to decide between Eli Rogers and newcomer Ryan Switzer. Switzer won that matchup primarily because of his perceived superior kick return abilities, although that prowess has yet to reveal itself in all honesty.
Now Switzer finds himself in the role of returning veteran facing a young upstart with superior kick return abilities. On film at least, it appears that McCloud may have superior short area quickness and elusiveness. McCloud also has experience as a gunner on special teams. Suddenly McCloud's long odds for a roster spot don't seem so long.
Switzer does still have a couple of factors in his favor. He knows the offense inside and out, a important factor considering the extremely limited window remaining for McCloud to learn the playbook. Switzer also has developed a rapport with the coaches and kinship with his teammates. By the way, did I mention that Switzer's best friend is a prominent member of the Steelers franchise.
Both Switzer and McCloud seem perfectly suited for the motion offense and misdirection plays being added to the Steelers offense thanks to the creative impact of QB coach Matt Canada. McCloud was used in a variety of ways during his tenure at Clemson.
All things being equal, my best guess is that Switzer makes the final roster, and the Steelers stash McCloud on the practice squad. Who knows, maybe McCloud pulls off a Duck worthy miracle and makes the roster, but the far more likely scenario is the one where Ray Ray bides his time on the practice squad until Switzer suffers yet another nagging injury and he gets his opportunity to shine in the big leagues.
Patience is a virtue, and it may just be the one skill set that McCloud has to show to make his NFL dreams come true.