How 'Spark' Free Agent WR Joined Atlanta Falcons, Became Slot Favorite

Past experiences with Atlanta Falcons head coach Raheem Morris and receiver coach Ike Hilliard played a part in Ray-Ray McCloud's decision.
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud III is the favorite to start in the slot.
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud III is the favorite to start in the slot. / Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- As Atlanta Falcons receiver Ray-Ray McCloud III stood on the outskirts of the IBM Performance Field at the end of mandatory minicamp in mid-June, his attention was drawn to the top of the hill in front of him.

It was Falcons receiver coach Ike Hilliard, kidding around with McCloud while he spoke. McCloud looked up, smiled and shouted back toward his position coach.

"I'm talking bad about you," McCloud joked.

In actuality, he was doing anything but - though the interaction offered insight as to how close and friendly the duo's relationship is off the field.

Hilliard, who was hired by Falcons head coach Raheem Morris on Feb. 1, and McCloud, who signed a two-year contract worth up to $7 million on March 18, first began working together in Atlanta on April 2.

But their track record with one another extends much longer.

McCloud played under Hilliard with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2020 and 2021, during which the 5-9, 190-pounder had the most productive years of his career catch-wise with 20 and 39, respectively.

In 2021, McCloud had a career-best 277 receiving yards while making five starts at receiver. He had nearly as many targets that season (66) as the other five years of his career combined (68).

The result, McCloud said, was the most fun time of his life. He was an offensive contributor for the first time of his pro career. He led the league with 38 punt returns for 367 yards in 2021. Football was everything, he said.

After his career year in 2021, McCloud signed with the San Francisco 49ers for the following two seasons. He handled punt and kick return duties, but his offensive impact dwindled, making 26 receptions for 378 yards and his lone career score across 40 targets during his time in the Bay Area.

This offseason, McCloud found himself back in a familiar spot: Searching for a new home. It didn't take long, as he agreed to terms with the Falcons on March 14, three days after the legal tampering period began.

Hilliard was part of the reason, though only partially - and he wasn't necessarily in his former wideout's ear. McCloud, a native of Tampa, Fla., also has a history with Morris, who was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' head coach for three years while McCloud was playing in the shadows of Raymond James Stadium.

Further, Morris led a workout with McCloud and Clemson teammate Deon Cain in Flowery Branch before the 2018 NFL Draft when Morris was Atlanta's receiver coach. Morris and McCloud had multiple conversations over the phone in addition to their private visit and kept in touch thereafter.

Familiarity with the coaching staff weighed a bit, but not a ton, in choosing Atlanta, McCloud said - but there were several other factors at play.

"Coaches change every day, players change every day, so it was more of what they were trying to do here," McCloud told FalconsSI. "The culture they're trying to build here. Knowing Raheem before I got to the NFL, the relationships I had here, being near home from Tampa.

"Being close but far - my family gets to see me play more. Out west, it's kind of tough. All of them can see me play (here). It all weighed in together."

But for as many reasons as McCloud had in venturing to Flowery Branch, the Falcons had quite a few, too.

While remodeling their receiver room this spring, the Falcons wanted to add speed and versatility around No. 1 wideout Drake London. While viewed as a slot-only player, McCloud can be used in a variety of ways offensively, be it as a runner or gadget piece.

During OTAs and mandatory minicamp, McCloud was Atlanta's primary slot receiver. He held the role over another new acquisition in Rondale Moore, who was acquired in March via trade from the Arizona Cardinals in exchange for quarterback Desmond Ridder.

Entering the summer, many viewed Moore as the favorite to start out of the slot. Between McCloud's strong start and Moore missing time due to a hamstring injury, McCloud appears to have the upper hand with training camp inching closer.

In years past, Atlanta's slot receiver spot wouldn't hold much value in terms of snap count; in 2023, the Falcons ran three-receiver sets just 17 percent of the time, the lowest mark in the league. Of course, that doesn't account for tight end Kyle Pitts lining up in the slot nearly 50% of his offensive snaps.

New Falcons offensive coordinator Zac Robinson said during OTAs he plans on running more 11 personnel, which means more snaps with three wideouts, using Pitts as a true tight end, thus heightening the value of the slot role.

When Atlanta returns for training camp July 24, Morris and staff will have plenty of evaluations to do, especially once pads come on. But Hilliard and Morris already know exactly who McCloud is, thanks to their prior experiences with one another.

Hilliard is grateful that Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot and the rest of the front office gave him and McCloud the opportunity to reunite. Besides a return ability Hilliard described as "fearless" and "really good," McCloud now gets the chance to exclusively compete to be an impact player on offense.

And in a receiving core headlined by London and fellow free agent signee Darnell Mooney, Hilliard sees an avenue for McCloud to be exactly that.

"We have guys outside of Drake and Mooney that have an opportunity to carve a niche out for themselves in the passing game if they continue to stack positive days and do well," Hilliard told FalconsSI. "So, we're all excited about Ray-Ray and his opportunity to play wideout."

As for the room around him, McCloud said it's young, fun and eager to get better every day. There's a consummate goal to get one percent better each practice and each meeting, fostering an enjoyable environment.

Such pleasure translates over to Robinson's scheme, which McCloud said focuses more on just one player.

"When you say offense, it's a team game," McCloud said. "You can just see the details he puts in day in and day out. Offensively, we're seeing the team get behind him, have confidence in him."

The same is true for McCloud, who's itching to shake the tag of return specialist and prove himself as a legitimate receiver. He has the opportunity to do so in Atlanta - and a clear plan for the role he wants to provide.

"Spark," McCloud said. "Be explosive."

Daniel Flick


Daniel Flick is an accredited NFL writer for Sports Illustrated's FanNation. Daniel has provided boots-on-ground coverage at the NFL Combine and from the Atlanta Falcons' headquarters, among other destinations, and contributed to the annual Lindy's Sports Magazine ahead of the 2023 offseason. Daniel is a co-host on the 404TheFalcon podcast and previously wrote for the Around the Block Network and Georgia Sports Hospitality Media.