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Should Ray-Ray McCloud return to the Steelers for 2022?

The Steelers return man and wide receiver is set to become a free agent next week.

NFL: DEC 26 Steelers at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a number of players who are set to hit free agency at the beginning of the league year in March. Before testing the waters, the Steelers have first crack at offering a deal if they so choose. So who should get a deal? Looking at the players one at a time and what they bring to the Steelers, up this week is kick returner/wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

Although a number of Steelers fans like to complain about McCloud’s contributions to the team, many of them are not founded in actual statistics. First and foremost, we’ll look at McCloud as a punt and kick returner since that was his intended primary function with the team. Yes, he was utilized more this season as a wide receiver, but that was due more to necessity because of injury than what the Steelers planned on doing going into the season.

McCloud led the NFL in both punt returns and return yards in 2021. Returning 38 punts for 367 yards, McCloud finished 12th in the NFL in yards per return among the players with at least 10 attempts at 9.66 yards.

When it comes to kick returns, this part of the game has been minimized greatly in recent seasons in the NFL. While some teams are satisfied simply letting their opponents start at the 25-yard line, others such as the Baltimore Ravens attempt a high kick short of the goal line in order to pin their opponent inside the 25. If a returner can gain the 25-yard line anyway, it makes the strategy moot. As for McCloud, he had 35 kick returns for 776 yards in 2021 with an average of 22.17 yards per return. Additionally, the average field position for his returns was the 24.37 yard line, making the touch back option basically the same desired result. While it is better for teams to have a better starting position than a touchback, continually not reaching the 25-yard line creates more of a problem. Therefore, Ray-Ray McCloud pretty much kept the Steelers kick return game a wash whether or not it was a touchback or a return.

Getting into the receiving numbers, McCloud saw twice as much action in 2021 from a targeting standpoint than he did in his previous three seasons combined. Targeted 66 times with 39 receptions and 277 yards, McCloud saw a significant drop off in his catch percentage for the previous season. Catching 90.9% of passes thrown his way in 2020 (20 receptions on 22 targets), McCloud caught 59.1% of balls in his direction in 2021. According to Pro Football Reference, McCloud had six drops in 2021 which gave him a drop rate of 9.1%.

So does Ray-Ray McCloud offer enough as a kick returner and depth at wide receiver to warrant another year in Pittsburgh? Let’s see if the film clears things up any better.

The Film Line:

Let’s start with Ray-Ray McCloud’s best skill, returning punts.

Steelers at Ravens, 4th quarter, 8:19.

I would rate this as Ray-Ray McCloud’s best return of 2021. It was only 23 yards, but it was a good one and shows that McCloud is a returner who finds the smart yards over being a player that gambles for big returns. While McCloud ranked 12th in yards per return, when you take out everyone’s longest return he shoots into the top 5. While big returns would be really nice, the more reliable yardage McCloud gives on every return is valuable as well.

Steelers vs. Bears, 4th quarter, 6:47.

McCloud was cut by the Panthers because of fumbles, and he ended up fumbling on two of his 36 punt returns in 2021. It’s no where close to his 3 fumbles on 18 total touches in 2019, but McCloud’s 4 total fumbles on 119 touches is a significantly higher rate than Diontae Johnson’s 2 fumbles on 112 touches, the only other non-quarterback with multiple fumbles for the Steelers in 2021.

Again you can see McCloud likes to work the middle of the field, taking the safe yards.

Next, a quick look at McCloud’s work on kickoffs.

Ravens at Steelers, 2nd quarter, 8:37.

You see McCloud again getting vertical and cutting up field instead of just stretching this return to the sideline, getting safer yards, but with less chance of breaking a big return. But this return is more important for what the opposing team does here.

Justin Tucker is an all-time great kicker, and the Ravens have the best kickoff team in the NFL, holding opponents to an average start of the 24 yard line. They do that by having Tucker hang these kicks in the air and drop them short of the end zone to force a return while giving the coverage team a lot of time to get downfield. It works on this play, and the Steelers started their drive short of the 20 yard line.

Interestingly, Ray-Ray McCloud was one of the better returners against the Ravens, and on McCloud’s kickoff returns against Justin Tucker he averaged getting the ball back to the 25 yard line, negating the Tucker advantage.

Steelers at Ravens, 1st quarter, 15:00.

In Week 18, Ray-Ray McCloud started the game off with this return, and while the Steelers offense would gain only 6 yards and punt, the field position set the Steelers up for a field goal after T.J. Watt forced a fumble on the Ravens next drive.

McCloud’s longest kick and punt returns were both in Week 18 against the Ravens and their stellar special teams. All three of his kickoff returns went past the 25 yard line, leading Tucker to kick his fourth kickoff of the game out of the end zone for a touchback.

While McCloud has proven himself to be a valuable returner, what has kept him on the team, and set him up to get a new contract with the Steelers, is his ability to be a pretty good receiver as well.

Steelers vs. Lions, 3rd quarter, 3:48.

Ray-Ray McCloud is the slot receiver to the top of the screen.

McCloud was thrust into a bigger role in Week 10 then anyone planned on him having in 2021. With Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster out, James Washington and McCloud stepped into top spots. Ray-Ray McCloud would end up catching 9 of his 12 targets (75%) for 63 yards, including this nice connection on third and 8. McCloud doesn’t make the sharpest cut on this out route, but he secures the catch through a big hit to convert the third down for Mason Rudolph and the Steelers.

McCloud was 2nd in targets against Detroit, and had the most receptions as James Washington disappointed and Diontae Johnson only caught 6 of his 13 targets. It stands out that McCloud and Rudolph are both on the second team, so they had been working together more than McCloud and Ben Roethlisberger, and it didn’t just show up with McCloud’s good game in Detroit, but in the rest of the season when Roethlisberger was throwing him the ball.

Steelers at Ravens, 1st quarter, 1:43.

Ray-Ray McCloud is the slot receiver to the top of the screen.

That was ugly, and it was costly with an interception on the play. It was clear throughout the season that McCloud and Roethlisberger were frequently not on the same page with route modifications.

Steelers at Ravens, 1st quarter, 1:43.

Ray-Ray McCloud is the slot receiver to the top of the screen.

The Steelers were lucky the Ravens only came away with 1 interception on passes to McCloud in Week 18. Again, Roethlisberger is expecting a deeper route from McCloud and doesn’t get it.

The last 6 games of the season McCloud took on a bigger role in the offense, but his catch rate was an astonishingly bad 47.6% as Roethlisberger and McCloud struggled to connect. Before then, with a much lesser role in every game but the Week 10 game with Rudolph McCloud had a 79.2% catch rate. Five of McCloud’s six drops were in the final 6 games as well.

But that doesn’t mean he didn’t do anything good in that time span.

Steelers at Ravens, Overtime, 2:28.

Ray-Ray McCloud is the slot receiver to the top of the screen.

Ben Roethlisberger’s last drive of his regular season career was a great one, with two 3rd and 8+ conversions and this conversion on 4th and 8 to move into field goal range where Chris Boswell would close it out for a win in Ben Roethlisberger's last game against his biggest rivals.

The Point:

Ray-Ray McCloud shouldn’t be a top three receiver on an NFL team, and he shouldn’t have been for the Steelers in 2021. But with JuJu Smith-Schuster injured and James Washington having a terrible season, McCloud was thrust into a top 3 receiver role for a significant part of the year. While it showed that he isn’t the man for that job, he also showed his value as a reliable top tier returner and also a receiver that can come in as the “next man up” and make some plays. If the Steelers can sign McCloud to a similar deal as they had in 2021, which was for one year and $1 million, it would be a good investment to fill position. But if McCloud is looking for a significant pay increase for 2022, there is a good possibility he will be searching for it somewhere other than Pitsburgh.