PITTSFORD – Ray-Ray McCloud clearly is doing something right.
Not once this training camp, but twice the Buffalo Bills’ second-year receiver has been singled out for the improvements he has made. The first time was by offensive coordinator Brian Daboll this past weekend, and the second came Wednesday, when head coach Sean McDermott was asked about the crowded receiver room.
“I think Ray-Ray McCloud has had a real nice training camp to this point,” the coach said when commenting on the competition, “just with effort and doing the things we expect our wide receivers to do.”
With 91 players on the roster, it’s noteworthy when the coach singles one out without specifically being asked about him. That speaks to the impression McCloud is making on not just the coaching staff, but his teammates as well.
“I think Ray-Ray is probably the most improved player within our receiver room, in my personal opinion,” third-year receiver Zay Jones said. “I feel like he's more poised, more confident, more of a pro.”
McCloud says he was humbled by his struggles as a rookie. He played in 10 games in 2018 but managed to make just five catches for 36 yards. Even coming from a big-time college program like Clemson, McCloud learned that the transition to life in the NFL has to do with more than just being on the field against better competition.
“There’s a transition from college to life as a professional," Jones said. "Knowing how to carry yourself, knowing how to be on top of your studies, discipline as far as how to take care of your body. I think Ray-Ray struggled in the beginning, but has come so far. He's doing a phenomenal job. Just the way he interacts in the meeting room, you can tell he's really establishing his footprint in this organization.”
One of the people helping McCloud learn what it means to be a professional this offseason is a current member of the Bills’ coaching staff who not so long ago had a different role in Buffalo. Leonard Johnson, who played slot cornerback during his one season with the team in 2017, has been working as a minority coaching intern during spring practices and into training camp.
One of the first players Johnson sought out when starting in his new role was McCloud, since both are from the Tampa, Fla., area.
“That was the first person I asked about,” Johnson said. “They told me about his inconsistency, all the stuff that he struggled with, in the building and away from the building. I just challenged him as a former player and then as a young guy trying to get into coaching. I questioned his professionalism.”
Johnson, who spent seven years in the NFL before retiring this offseason, saw a player who had a good deal of success in college, including winning a national championship in 2016. After declaring for the 2018 draft, McCloud made the Bills as a sixth-round draft pick.
“I just felt like he felt entitled to some stuff and complacent,” Johnson said. “In this league, you can't have either of the two. It was mostly just me showing him some love, but then also keeping it completely honest. Any day, every day, guys can come in and take your spot.
“He has all the physical talent, it’s just fine-tuning things to make him an actual pro.”
Johnson, who is hoping his internship serves as a foot in the door on the way to a full-time coaching job, played for McDermott in both Buffalo and Carolina. He knows what the Bills’ coach is looking for not just on the field, but in a player’s approach to everything else that comes with the job.
Johnson told McCloud that Bills defensive back Siran Neal would be spending a month with him in Florida between minicamp and the start of training camp and invited the receiver to join them for workouts. With Neal making the transition from safety to slot cornerback and McCloud lining up at slot receiver during the spring, Johnson was the ideal teacher for both. He was able to tell Neal what worked for him at the position and tell McCloud what made slot receivers tough to defend.
The sessions focused on more than just on-the-field training, though. Johnson’s goal was to convince both Neal and McCloud that they needed to be the first one in the weight room and the last one to leave the field.
That’s been on display in camp, as McCloud consistently stays late after practice to put in extra work. Having a mentor like Johnson is something McCloud lacked as a rookie. The Bills’ receiver room in 2018 simply did not have that kind of a veteran presence, particularly after Jeremy Kerley was released early in the year.
“It was like I'm in a jungle finding my way by myself,” McCloud said.
This year is different. The Bills signed veterans John Brown, Cole Beasley and Andre Roberts as free agents. All of them have established NFL resumes, and Jones is building one, too, entering his third year.
“Definitely a blessing,” McCloud said of the additions at receiver. “It's a blessing to have Zay and the rest of my peers in the room. Zay’s my boy. ... Me and Zay always talk about little stuff off the field, not even getting better on the field, just about being more urgent, doing things in the facility.”
“We've had our talks, but I can't take credit for any of the things he's done,” Jones said. “His strides have been his own.”
The Bills have what looks to be an established top five at receiver in Brown, Beasley, Jones, Robert Foster and Roberts. That means McCloud must show not only that he’s better than the other six receivers on the team, but also that the coaching staff should keep six players at the position on the active roster. Through the first week of camp, he’s off to a good start in that regard.
“I just come to work every day. It's not a groove, it's just confidence,” he said. “I was confident last year, it's just more, I'm able to show it now. I'm out here playing free. I know what I'm doing. I'm in my second year. I'm comfortable. I have a lot of vets around me pushing me, motivating me and inspiring me every day. We all help each other get better every day.”
As for what it means that the coaching staff has taken notice of that, McCloud made it clear that getting complacent is no longer an option.
"Just keep working,” he said. “I don't work to be talked about, I work just to get better. That's my goal every day.”