Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

13 Oct 2016

Film Room: Terrelle Pryor

by Cian Fahey

Terrelle Pryor might be unique. There are other converted quarterbacks playing receiver in the NFL but none who converted at age 27 after four years in the league. Pryor was signed as a quarterback by the Cincinnati Bengals, his third team in less than a year, just 18 months ago. Six weeks later he was released. He never even participated in a practice, let alone a game. Pryor didn't hide the fact that he felt disrespected by teams as a quarterback. He told Don Banks, then of Sports Illustrated, that teams always said the same thing and passed on him because of the politics involved with that position.

Feeling scorned, it would have been easy for Pryor to sulk. He could have angled for a role in the media or tried out for a minor league baseball team. Instead, he embraced the challenge of becoming an NFL receiver.

Pryor was extremely confident, maybe even a little ignorant, about the daunting task he faced. "I can play wideout," Pryor told Banks. "I can get some trick plays, throw some touchdowns, just be an absolute playmaker, a beast, a guy who can do so many different things."

Pryor made the Cleveland Browns' initial 2015 53-man roster, but was released and then re-signed during the season to accommodate injury at other positions. He caught one pass and was active for just three games that season. Pryor's confidence reaped little reward, but nothing should have been expected from him after just a few months learning a new position.

Being a receiver isn't about being bigger and faster than everyone else on the field, though that can certainly help. But unless you are a Randy Moss caliber of talent, you can't solely rely on your ball skills and athleticism. You need to also understand the nuances of route-running and the timing of routes against specific coverages to get open in the right spot at the right time. Pryor never had a chance to refine his skill set in one offseason to become a consistent contributor. Doing so in two offseasons would still be an outlandish expectation.

Yet here we are. Eighteen months later, Pryor is the Browns' No. 1 receiver.

The Browns don't have a great receiving corps, but that shouldn't be used as negative context for Pryor. The lack of talent in Cleveland gave Pryor his chance, but it didn't make him who he is. Pryor is a quality starter independent of his situation, and he would be a valuable player no matter the offense in which he played. His size and athleticism are now being showcased by impressive ball skills, precise footwork, and aggression in his routes. He isn't clumsy. He's not awkward. He doesn't fight the football or struggle to adjust when a pass isn't perfectly thrown. Defensive backs can't box him out or predict his route based on how he releases from the line of scrimmage. Pryor is what he told us he would be: a legitimate NFL receiver.

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When the Minnesota Vikings drafted Cordarrelle Patterson in the first round in 2013, they understood that they were taking a project at wide receiver. Patterson was a great physical talent who immediately proved to be valuable with the ball in his hands during his rookie season. The problem was getting the ball in his hands. Although he has enjoyed a recent spell of relative productivity, the majority of Patterson's career has been defined by his inability to create separation on his own. It became clear that there were two Cordarrelle Pattersons -- one was an aggressive, decisive, and downright scary runner with the ball in his hands; the other was a timid, passive, and submissive route-runner without it. What Patterson never learned was that he needed to use his upper body in his routes. Now you may not be allowed to use your upper body, but you have to find ways to if you want to be effective in the NFL.

Pryor hasn't encountered that problem so far. Take the above GIF for example. New England's Malcolm Butler doesn't play press coverage at the line, but he is waiting for Pryor after he releases. Butler lets Pryor close the space while turning his hips to run with him. It's important to note that Pryor never pushes off on this play. He leans into Butler and only extends his arm as he turns so it looks like a natural action. This is a minor detail, but it's very difficult for officials to call this as a push-off when there is no clear pushing motion.

This is an action that Pryor has done with good effect throughout the season. Washington's Josh Norman struggled to deal with his physicality on a number of occasions.

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Pryor is able to run such routes because he's not showing off the lack of comfort you would expect from such an inexperienced receiver. Being a natural athlete helps, but what matters more is that Pryor acts without thinking. This is not only important for running routes, but for adjusting to the football and recognizing coverages. In the above GIF Pryor attempts to bait Miami's cornerback to bite on the slant so he can release past him down the sideline. With the cornerback in off coverage and playing passively, Pryor was never going to be able to do that. His quarterback recognizes this and delivers the ball to Pryor's back shoulder when the cornerback turns to sprint downfield. Had Pryor not been comfortable in his actions, he would not have recognized the situation or turned his head to come back to the ball. When his initial intention was covered, he didn't panic and try to force the route, he made the necessary adjustment for a big play.

On this play against Norman, Pryor made a similar adjustment to the ball when Norman mirrored him through the early stages of his route.

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Being a receiver requires precise footwork and balance as well as a knowledge of what to do to manipulate the defensive backs covering you. In the above play, New England's Logan Ryan plays press coverage against Pryor with safety help over the top. Pryor uses a jab step with his inside foot to force Ryan to react inside before he advances downfield past his outside shoulder. This creates space for Pryor to bend his route towards the posts before making a sharp cut back towards the sideline. The angle he ultimately creates and the timing with which he breaks prevents Ryan from following him through his route. Importantly, the depth of his route results in a first down while not giving the deep safety an opportunity to close on him before the pass arrives.

The receiver taps his toes before going out of bounds to assure himself of the completion. Pryor is a long body but doesn't carry a big frame. That allows him to cut like a smaller receiver because he doesn't have to account for added bulk.

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On this play, Pryor is in a similar situation to the one he was in against the Dolphins in the second GIF. His route works on this occasion because he is able to make the cornerback bite with his sharp and fast cut. The ball is thrown late and off target, but if it had been thrown on time Pryor would have been in the perfect position to attack it with the cornerback focused on recovering his positioning. The cornerback would not have been able to find the ball, so an accurate pass was more likely to result in pass interference rather than a pass breakup.

All routes begin with stems. Stems are extremely important for any receiver. They determine how much space you will have to work with through the rest of your route. One of Pryor's biggest concerns right now is his inability to release on vertical routes past the outside shoulder of a cornerback who lines up outside the numbers. On too many occasions he has been squeezed out to the sideline or even over the sideline because he releases outside from the start of the play and refuses to run through the defender's shoulder. The defender can then just slowly guide him towards the sideline as Pryor tries to sprint past him downfield.

The sideline is the cornerback's friend and the receiver's enemy. It can be easier to work from the slot in the NFL because the cornerback covering you has to respect both shoulders equally. Cornerbacks who line up outside will always try to encourage you towards the sideline when you release outside. If you're smart, you will use that against them when running in-breaking routes.

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Byron Maxwell has been a horrible cornerback since he left the Seahawks. In Seattle he was hidden by a great pass rush and a secondary that could tip towards him. He rarely played in space, and when he did the pass rush forced the offense to speed up so he didn't have to cover for a long time. With that said, Maxwell is still a seasoned NFL cornerback. He is still a professional. He is still someone who should easily handle a former quarterback who only began running routes 18 months previous.

Pryor looked like Randy Moss against Maxwell. In the above play Pryor immediately angles towards Maxwell's outside shoulder from the snap. He even oversells the sideline release to the point that Maxwell should recognize he's being too aggressive. Pryor aligned very close to the sideline before the ball was even snapped so there wasn't any space to work outside. At the perfect time and with great speed, Pryor swivels to turn back infield. He is already in the slant action when Maxwell turns to follow him. Maxwell is beaten so badly that he has no chance of recovering to tackle Pryor. Pryor vaults into wide-open space. A comfortable hands catch and some elusiveness allow him to gallop downfield, putting the offense in scoring range.

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Stems and their importance can't be emphasized enough. Take the above play for example. In that play Pryor beat Maxwell for a first down on third-and-10. This play was easy, partly because it's Byron Maxwell, but also due to the little details. Maxwell actually establishes good positioning and has shown that he can track receivers on slants to knock the ball away with his length. The important action in this route for Pryor is his initial release, because he releases towards the cornerback and pushes towards his outside shoulder. He threatens Maxwell vertically enough to hold the cornerback and prevent him from sitting inside. By planting into the cornerback and crossing his face instead of simply releasing towards his inside shoulder and just turning, Pryor creates the space into which he eventually runs.

Last year, Film Room looked at Davante Adams, and a major problem with his play was his slack routes. When running that route, Adams doesn't angle towards the cornerback's outside shoulder or cut sharply across his body. He is focused on the rigid outline of the route and running along it like he is following a sat nav. Everyone can follow sat navs, even cornerbacks. Route-running requires more than simply following a drawn-out line.

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One of the big concerns about Pryor converting to receiver so late in his life was going to be his ability to catch the ball. He has proven to be a consistent hands catcher even though he has had a couple of drops. He has also proven to have a wide catch radius that extends around his body and functions in different situations. He can drop low to the ground to cradle a ball thrown into the dirt and he can reach into the air while keeping his feet in bounds to complete the sideline play. Pryor's feet and hands naturally work in concert so that he can always contort his body to react to every situation he finds himself in. Though repetition undoubtedly helps, those aren't necessarily traits that you can learn -- those are traits you either have or you don't. It's clear that Pryor has them.

You always have to be wary about what you believe from NFL coaches. Hue Jackson is no different. Before the season began, Jackson waxed lyrically about his converted receiver. "[Pryor] understands that he has work to do," Jackson said in a story on the Browns' official website. "He is just putting his head down and working... He's one of the young men who have really dedicated themselves to really trying to improve himself in an area to give himself the opportunity to be a part of this football team."

The sheer wordiness of that statement suggests that Jackson was rambling a bit. However, there are clear signs that Pryor is improving, even from the early games of the season to recent weeks.

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Zone coverages are a completely different challenge than press-man or off-man coverages. Some routes can create one-on-one situations where the zone play call is essentially negated, but that's not always the case. When working against zone coverages you have to be able to find the pocket of space that gives your quarterback an opportunity to find you. This might mean breaking your route off at a different depth or settling your route down instead of continuing it to completion.

In the above play against the Dolphins, Pryor runs a crossing route and clears the underneath linebackers who are running in the other direction. At that point of the play he hesitates and is trapped between stopping his route in space or continuing across the field. He drifts into coverage instead of settling in space. Cody Kessler's ball is still catchable and Pryor reacts well to catch it, but he created a contested catch situation where one didn't need to exist.

Later in the same game, Pryor atones for his error.

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This time Pryor runs a curl route. He initially runs into the safety's spot on the field, but recognizes that the safety has vacated the area. When he turns back to his quarterback he can see the pressure closing around him. Pryor senses the space inside and moves to create a throwing lane for Kessler. Kessler delivers a fastball that Pryor catches into his chest before continuing downfield for a first down and a big play.

He's still far from a top-tier possession receiver or a perfectly polished diagnoser of coverages, but the signs are undoubtedly there. Pryor himself credits wide receivers coach Al Saunders for his development.

A recent report from NFL Network's Courtney Fallon suggested that Pryor was the only player on the Browns' roster who is untouchable. Every other player, including future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas, is available for the right price. While this seems absurd, it is at least plausible based on the potential and the rapid development that Pryor has shown off. Even at 27 years of age he can still be a high-quality receiver for five or six years given his athletic prowess. He just needs to continue to develop and maintain his consistency. Those are tall tasks, but considering what he has achieved over the past 18 months, it's hard to bet against him.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 13 Oct 2016

4 comments, Last at 13 Oct 2016, 9:39pm by lokiwi

Comments

1
by bubqr :: Thu, 10/13/2016 - 12:44pm

Good article. No way in hell I expected Pryor to make that position change successfully. Maybe his ego became an asset in motivating him to "prove doubters wrong"

On anoither note, Byron Maxwell was not horrible with the Eagles, but everytime I see Dolphins footage, he looks like the worst CB in the league by a mile. Why is he still playing?

2
by Cian Fahey :: Thu, 10/13/2016 - 12:47pm

He was benched but Xavien Howard got injured so he was forced back onto the field then.

4
by lokiwi :: Thu, 10/13/2016 - 9:39pm

I don't know if he really has that much of an ego. The "politics" comment about being released as a QB feels justified. How's he supposed to take it when he is on the street to start an NFL season and guys like Jimmy Clausen make a roster?

3
by mrwalterisgod :: Thu, 10/13/2016 - 3:36pm

The Pryor resurrection makes me think back to when Seneca Wallace was backing Hasselbeck during the Holmgren years. It's a shame they pigeon-holed him into being a backup QB and didn't give him a shot at WR full time. Dude was super athletic.