The Cleveland Browns are improbably awful, and they’re careening face-first toward a winless season. Tonight, the Browns face the Ravens in Baltimore, their one national television appearance of the year. Ordinarily, this would be an invitation to do literally anything else with your time. But the Browns have wide receiver Terrelle Pryor, and Terrelle Pryor is worth watching.
Everything else about the Browns hits the familiar notes of ineptitude: the league’s second-worst defensive DVOA, a rotating cast of crappy quarterbacks, the creative ways to lose winnable games. But Pryor, who has 46 catches for 579 yards and four touchdowns, is a surprising antidote to all that. And his backstory as a QB who was waived four times in 12 months before reinventing himself as a pass catcher makes his success all the more remarkable.
Pryor has always been an athletic marvel. He was once ranked as the top high school prospect in the country, in a class that included A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Robert Griffin III, and Andrew Luck. Most future pros dominate at the prep level, but I covered high school football in Pennsylvania at the time, and even now, it’s difficult to overstate just how extraordinarily gifted Pryor was, a dual threat as a passer and runner who also garnered serious recruiting interest as a basketball player. He went on to be the MVP of the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl at Ohio State, before his college career was cut short by a couple of NCAA scandals that now seem laughably picayune. The Raiders selected him in the supplemental draft. Their head coach at the time was Hue Jackson. That connection would establish a tie between Pryor and Jackson that led to a reunion this year in Cleveland—and to Pryor’s eventual position switch.
Last month, Ryan Jones went long for Bleacher Report on Pryor’s metamorphosis from quarterback to wideout. Pryor would start just 10 games at quarterback for the Raiders from 2011-13, and he eventually lost his job to Matt McGloin. But for a long time, as one of Pryor’s former high school coaches told Jones, Pryor was reluctant to so much as consider switching positions because he was supremely confident in his ability to play quarterback at the highest level.
“I asked him about that one time—switching positions—maybe two or three years ago,” Hall says, “and he was upset that I asked. Well, maybe not upset, but more hurt, like, ‘Coach, I can’t believe that you’re asking.’ He just never doubted himself.”
It was during 2015 OTAs that Pryor had a brief stint as a member of the Bengals, for whom Jackson served as offensive coordinator. By then, Jackson had begun seeing Pryor’s potential as a wideout. Stephanie Apstein in The MMQB wrote:
The unrefined quarterback lacked the passing experience of a starter and the deferential personality of a backup. But that athleticism …
“He’s like a gazelle,” says Jackson. “Any time he took off and ran, it would put [him as a receiver] in your mind.”
Jackson didn’t force it, though. “I couldn’t bring myself to kill anybody’s dream,” he says with a sigh. “You have to make your mind up to give yourself to it. This is a tough sport. You’ve gotta be all in. You can’t do it by degrees. I didn’t think I was the right person to say, Hey, look, by the way, you’re gonna have to play another position if you want to stay in the National Football League. He figured it out.”
Pryor signed with the Browns in June 2015 and decided his only possible NFL future lay in being a receiver. To aid with his transition, he began working with Tim Cortazzo, a former high school opponent who had played WR at the University of Toledo. “I think he became obsessed with the challenge,” Cortazzo told Bleacher Report, “like, ‘Everyone’s doubting me, I’m going to make this happen.’ I think that was the switch that went off.” Pryor also studied the work of Falcons wideout Julio Jones, whom he closely resembles physically.
The Browns cut Pryor just before the start of the ‘15 season, then brought him back in December. He played in two games and caught one pass, but the Browns—with Jackson by now on board as their head coach—saw enough to extend a restricted free agent tender of $1.671 million, which Pryor signed.
Pryor made his mark right away, with 68 receiving yards in Week 1 at the Eagles. By Week 3, he was off and running: eight catches for 144 yards against the Dolphins, with that gazelle-like ability Jackson had described on full display:
That Pryor can glide in the open field is one thing. That he’s 6-foot-4, 223 pounds is another. He fits the mold of the sort of big, strong wide receiver that has come to dominate the NFL in recent years. And he’s been served well by having understood routes from the quarterback’s point of view.
Look at the body control on this touchdown grab despite a double team. Note, too, the way Pryor is able to reach up and catch the ball away from his body:
Watch how smoothly he bends his knees to turn back and get the ball here:
Watch him notice Byron Maxwell get caught back on his heels, before pantsing Maxwell with a quick stride into this slant:
And check out how he breaks off this route to run to the right, where Cody Kessler, who was flushed from the pocket, can see him. Note how he waves his arm to draw Kessler’s attention:
The Browns may not have much going for them, but they know they have something in Pryor, with whom they’ve begun talks on a contract extension. The scary part is, Pryor is still so new to the position, he may only be just starting to see his full potential.
“I don’t know if I necessarily thought he’d be this good, this fast, but we still have a long way to go in this process,” Cortazzo said. “He’s not even close to where I believe he can be.”