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Steelers lose first 2022 free agent as Ray-Ray McCloud joins the 49ers

After two years in Pittsburgh, McCloud is heading to the NFC West.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been very busy during the first week of the 2022 free agency period. Already signing five players from outside the organization as well as bringing back several of their own, the Steelers have seen the first player leave the team this offseason as an unrestricted free agent. According to the NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, former Steelers wide receiver and kick returner Ray-Ray McCloud is signing with the San Francisco 49ers.

In 2021, McCloud played for the Steelers for a $1 million contract. While many Steelers fans believed McCloud could possibly return to the Steelers at around the same money as he earned last season, the contract he was given from the 49ers was nowhere in the neighborhood as to what Steelers fans would have expected for a return to the Steel City. Quoted to be as much as $10.4 million for two years, McCloud is definitely cashing in by leaving Pittsburgh.

As for his production with the Steelers, McCloud was a recent topic of a Steelers Vertex article at BTSC. His statistics, particularly involving the 2021 season, were outlined as follows:

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%.

If the reports of McCloud signing come to fruition, it will be his fourth team in five seasons since being a sixth-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills in 2018. McCloud spent part of the 2019 season with the Carolina Panthers before spending 2020 and 2021 in Pittsburgh.

Although he was used as a receiver last season much more than previous years, the biggest question which will need to be answered for the Steelers with the departure of McCloud will be who will handle the Steelers kickoff and punt returning responsibilities.

Stay tuned to Behind The Steel Curtain for breaking news, player updates, and all things Pittsburgh Steelers.