The Oakland Raiders seemingly didn’t view Terrelle Pryor as a franchise quarterback, or even a solid starter, this offseason when they used their fourth-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft on Tyler Wilson and traded their fifth-round 2014 draft pick to acquire Matt Flynn from the Seattle Seahawks.
The Raiders seemingly still have their doubts about Pryor: They pursued quarterback Josh Freeman (who ultimately signed with the Minnesota Vikings) following his release from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Thursday and brought in Pat White and David Carr for workouts on Tuesday, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
If Pryor can continue to perform as well as he has in the first five weeks of the Raiders season, he may soon turn the Oakland brass into believers.
While it remains very unclear what Pryor’s place in Oakland’s future will be, his position as the starter for the 2013 season has become clear. He won the starting job in the preseason over Flynn and Wilson, and, in fact, neither remains with the team: Wilson lost a roster spot to undrafted rookie Matt McGloin (who is now Oakland’s second-string quarterback) in the preseason, while Flynn was cut Monday.
Pryor should be at no risk of losing his starting job with Freeman off the market, but there’s no reason his job should be in jeopardy anyway.
In four starts this season (he missed Week 4 versus the Washington Redskins with a concussion), Pryor has completed 68.3 percent of his passing attempts for 845 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions, while rushing for 229 yards on 37 carries. He has led the Raiders to two wins, and his 97.6 passer rating ranks eighth among NFL quarterbacks this season.
The Raiders won’t be signing their 2011 supplemental draft selection to a long-term contract because of four games. But his strong start should, at the very least, start the conversation about whether Pryor could be a long-term answer for a team who hasn’t been strong at the quarterback position since Rich Gannon was the NFL MVP in 2002.
How Pryor is Emerging as a Legitimate NFL Starting QB
Pryor’s immense physical upside has been clear since he was a high school football player ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the class of 2008 by national recruiting services Rivals and Scout. With ideal size (6’4”, 233 lbs), a cannon arm and sprinter speed, Pryor embodies the modern physical prototype for a quarterback.
Being an ideal physical specimen and being a quarterback capable of precise ball placement who can read defenses, however, are two very different things. While his proven traits to the former give him franchise quarterback potential, it is Pryor’s improvement in the latter categories that may allow him to actually establish himself as a franchise player in Oakland.
Although he showed potential during his three years at Ohio State to eventually develop into a first-round pick, his inconsistency-plagued career and scandal-plagued exit from OSU made the Raiders' third-round pick of the 2011 NFL supplemental draft a surprising, much-criticized decision.
As Al Davis’ final draft selection in Oakland before his October 2011 death, Pryor fit the bill of a typical Raiders selection under Davis: a player drafted higher than his on-field play warranted because of his physical potential.
For Davis’ draft strategy to pay off, a player’s skill set relative to his position has to develop significantly. In Pryor’s case, it has.
Perhaps most importantly, Pryor’s downfield accuracy has improved.
At OSU, Pryor tended to rely on his arm strength and just chuck the ball deep, hoping his receiver could make a play on it. This year in Oakland, Pryor has shown a repeated ability to place the ball accurately deep and intermediately.
It took Pryor just one play from scrimmage in the Raiders’ late-night game Sunday versus the San Diego Chargers to show that deep-ball ability. He fired a deep ball 46 air yards up the right sideline that hit wide receiver Rod Streater ahead of two Chargers defensive backs as he neared the end zone for a 44-yard touchdown.
Overall, Pryor ranks 11th through the first five weeks of the NFL season with a 43.8 accuracy percentage (7-of-16) on deep passing (throws of 20 yards or more) according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). At the intermediate level (10-19 yards), Pryor has completed 66.6 percent of his passes (14-of-21) according to PFF.
Making plays on the run always has been a staple of Pryor’s game, and will be as long as he’s a successful NFL quarterback.
He has shown marked improvement in his mechanics while making plays on the run. On plays where Pryor may have simply tucked and run the ball in past years, he has consistently done a great job keeping his eyes downfield and allowing plays to develop while his feet are moving.
The above screenshots illustrate an example of one play where Pryor did this well. He was forced to roll right out near the sideline, where he had a lane in front of him to tuck, run and gain some yardage with his speed. But he kept his eyes on the prize downfield, as the screenshots below illustrate more clearly. By doing so, he was able to find wide receiver Denarius Moore getting open on an out route ahead of coverage for a 19-yard connection.
Whether it has been continuing to scan the field while scrambling or head faking and switching his reads in the pocket, Pryor’s ability to connect his eyes with his mind and body may be his best improvement, but have not been his only mechanical breakthrough.
Pryor has a fluid delivery and efficient release. Passes have been coming out of his hand with consistent zip, which has allowed him to make big plays downfield because he is not simply lobbing the ball with his arm strength. These traits have stayed consistent when he is throwing on the move or has rolled outside of the pocket, allowing him to make effective throws under pressure.
While his scrambling and running ability may generate most of the attention, his footwork in the pocket has also improved. He does a good job of sliding away from pressure in the pocket to buy time, and although he has had some issues with slipping, his footwork has been mostly clean on drops from under center.
With all of that said, Pryor may have never gotten a chance to be an NFL starting quarterback had it not been for his athletic playmaking ability. By becoming a smarter and mechanically sound football player, he has been able to use his physical gifts to make some big plays early this season.
The following play versus the Indianapolis Colts was one of Pryor’s most spectacular plays of the season to date.
Pryor started in the pocket, surveying the field and making an effective read switch, but was forced to roll left out of the pocket when a heavy rush came toward him.
A slower, less-mobile quarterback would have been sacked or had to throw the ball away in that situation, but not Pryor. The play became even more impressive when Pryor used a very convincing pump fake to get a rusher to leave his feet. This gave Pryor time to roll back to the right side, which required using his speed to run through a lane between multiple rushers in the backfield.
A block from teammate Tony Pashos gave Pryor a moment to square up his shoulders downfield on the right side of the field, but he took a big hit from Colts cornerback Darius Butler as he threw. Still, Pryor managed to make a strong throw through the contact, back across his body to connect with an open Rod Streater for a 17-yard completion.
Pryor has shown that he can stand and deliver a strong throw for the pocket or take off running for big yardage gains, but the above play is a shining example of Pryor’s skill set. He is very good at evading pressure with his feet, can run away from defenders with his speed, does a good job quickly squaring his shoulders to the target and can deliver a strong throw even through heavy pressure or a hit.
What Pryor Must Do to be the Franchise QB
First and foremost, Pryor must continue to play as well as he has through his first four games this season. While he is bound to have a bad game at some point, he will quickly lose the Raiders’ faith if he does not play well—especially in terms of his downfield passing—on a consistent basis.
There are still some ways Pryor needs to improve.
As is often the case for a young playmaker, he hates to give up on a play. While he does a great job extending plays with his athleticism and often makes spectacular plays like the demonstrated 17-yard completion against the Colts, he sometimes costs the team with a sack or turnover by trying too hard to make a play.
The following example that occurred versus the Chargers on a play that ended in a strip sack. As the pocket collapsed around him completely, Pryor should have known to throw the ball away if possible or if necessary, tuck the ball securely and take a sack. Instead, he tried to work through the pressure and make a downfield throw, an attempt on which he got sandwiched and lost the ball for a fumble.
On the contrary, Pryor also needs to become less anxious to get outside the pocket. While his ability to run away from pressure and extend plays outside does more good than bad, he still tends to abandon the pocket at the first sign of pressure, either making his throw tougher or leading him to just tuck the football and run with it.
Directionally, Pryor has a tendency to roll right when he does run out of the pocket, and subsequently he makes many of his throws to the right side of the field. Beyond the line of scrimmage, he has thrown 30 times to the right side of the field but only 14 times to the left side of the field, according to PFF.
This is a tendency opposing defenses will diagnose and start game planning for, so he should make an effort to vary his directional passing and become more comfortable throwing to his left.
Nonetheless, Pryor has looked like a franchise quarterback early this season. He must continue his high level of play and bounce back when he does have bad games, but he is quickly becoming known more for the plays he is making for the Raiders and less for his role in one of college football’s most famous scandals.
Regardless of how well Pryor plays the rest of the season, the Raiders would be best to delay any decision on his long-term future until after the 2014 season, when they will have to because of his impending unrestricted free agency in 2015.
That said, his development could allow the Raiders to focus on fixing other areas on a roster full of holes in the 2014 offseason, rather than having to once again make an upgrade at quarterback the team’s top priority.
All screenshots were taken from NFL Game Rewind with all illustrations added by the author firsthand.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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