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Terrelle Pryor Has Gone from Scrap Heap to Potential Difference-Maker

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystAugust 22, 2016

SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 20:  Wide receiver Terrelle Pryor #17 of the Cleveland Browns rushes against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on December 20, 2015 in Seattle, Washington. The Seahawks defeated the Browns 30-13.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Look at the numbers Cleveland Browns wide receiver Terrelle Pryor produced through two preseason games. Look hard, and take as much time as you need.

In fact, stare until the disbelief turns into amazement.

If you didn't watch either Browns game, it would be reasonable to think his 107 receiving yards and one touchdown on just three catches came against scrubs or second-tier defenders. It is the preseason after all, and that happens in early in August when coaches often rest top players.

But fire up the tape and note the cornerback defending Pryor on his 50-yard touchdown reception Thursday night against the Atlanta Falcons. That's Desmond Trufant, a first-round pick in 2013 and a Pro Bowler in 2015. He finished third overall in cover snaps per reception allowed (17.1), according to Pro Football Focus.

Yet there he was, able to only stare at Pryor's fast-moving cleats as the former Buckeye hit another gear to create separation.

There was a similar gap during Week 1 of the preseason between Pryor and Green Bay Packers cornerback Damarious Randall. He's another first-round pick and a player who excelled in 2015 with three interceptions and a passer rating in coverage of 87.6.

Meanwhile, Pryor once occupied high draft territory too and was a third-round pick in the supplemental draft. But back then he was throwing footballs, not making spectacular diving catches for 49 yards against guys such as Randall.

That's why we need to stop and absorb where Pryor came from and where he could be going.

He spent the 2014 regular season out of football and received only nibbles of interest and tire-kicking workouts while still pursuing his goal of being an NFL quarterback. Then, at age 26, he announced his intention to make a position switch and breathe every last bit of oxygen into his dying football career.

Pryor would begin the transition to wide receiver.

Now he's dug himself out of the vast graveyard for athletic quarterbacks whose throwing crosshairs have gone haywire. Pryor is no longer discarded prospect junk and is instead emerging to become a difference-making receiver.

He's even listed as a starter and will likely stay there until fellow receiver Josh Gordon's four-game suspension is over.

That sort of ascension will happen fast if you're proving yourself against top competition. Sure, the sample size is microscopic, but it's also been consistently, well, lengthy.

Pryor has just four career catches between a brief Week 17 regular-season appearance in 2015 and the 2016 preseason. Nearly all of them have ended with the first-down marker being placed much further downfield.

Terrelle Pryor's Wide Receiver Career So Far
GameReceptionsYards
Week 17142
Preseason Week 1257
Preseason Week 2150
Totals4149
Source: NFL.com

Pryor is averaging 37.3 yards per reception with Cleveland. Telling you that's not sustainable feels like noting gravity exists. But forget that ballooned average and focus on the fact it's not difficult to see Pryor as a vertical burner. He could become a dangerous threat fast.

Why? Because he's shown nuanced speed.

There are plenty of fast receivers in the NFL and just as many quick-twitch cornerbacks on the other side. Possessing only speed will often give you an NFL career and possibly even a long one as a high draft pick (see: Ginn, Ted). But what differentiates the track stars from the true receivers is a natural awareness of when and how to vary your speed to create a gap.

Pryor has demonstrated an understanding of that concept, and Trufant knows it. Let's look at his 50-yard touchdown reception against the Falcons cornerback again, this time pressing the pause button first when Pryor isn't open and then when he's wide-open.

Here's the first frame. This doesn't show a receiver who's capable of breaking free from any high-caliber cornerback. No, it shows a receiver who has gained maybe a half-step on Trufant, if we're being generous:

Credit: NFL GamePass

It's debatable whether that meets the definition of "open" in the NFL. Had Pryor and Trufant stayed in roughly those same positions downfield, a completion would have required an acrobatic catch and a pinpoint throw by Browns quarterback Robert Griffin III, as his receiver was pressed against the sideline.

But Pryor only had his pedal down about three quarters of the way to the floor as he pushed to steal a sliver of daylight from Trufant. Then with the ball in the air and sailing deep, he took off:

Credit: NFL GamePass

Pryor was two full yards ahead of Trufant by the time he slowed down a touch to wait for Griffin's rainbow. A core skill of deep-threat receivers is being able to leave the cornerback behind once they're running evenly downfield and the ball is airborne.

It was all textbook stuff from a player who's only had the wide receiver instruction manual in his possession for just over a year. Pryor gained body position and kept Trufant behind him using his 6'4", 223-pound frame. Then he saved one final forward burst to separate and meet Griffin's throw right near the end zone.

When asked to describe his ability to blast off while the ball was in flight, Pryor was lost for words (1:40 mark below):

Cleveland Browns @Browns

“I’m just trying to do my part and do it to the best I can.” 1-on-1 with @TerrellePryor https://t.co/Wrc8RhVENe

Confidence isn't an issue for Pryor, even if the wide receiver gig is new to him. It would be understandable if his inexperience led to some uneasiness when lining up across from a corner on Trufant's level. But none of that registered with Pryor, who only had one thought when he heard the play call and then trotted out wide.

"I knew I had him when we called the play," he told reporters after the game. "I knew I was going to beat him."

That confidence is rooted in more than just 4.38 speed. Pryor knows he's gifted with the athleticism to not only separate but also expand his catch radius to win contested balls.

He's also provided evidence of that ability during his limited time as an NFL receiver. Just ask former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Antwon Blake, who was undercut and outmaneuvered by Pryor as the tall receiver elevated to reach a deep throw at the highest point of its downward arc:

Credit: NFL GamePass

The true test for Pryor will be whether he can refine his craft.

Can he learn to beat press coverage? Can he master how to read what a cornerback is giving him and do it consistently? Can he continue to conquer both the mental and physical challenges of his unique transition?

Those questions and more lie ahead, along with plenty of possible hurdles. There may be setbacks in his development too, and Pryor will be defined by how he overcomes them. Nothing is certain yet, even if he's displayed the tools needed to thrive in his new role against premier defenders.

At the very least, Pryor has shown he deserves a role at receiver for the Browns early with Gordon suspended and first-round pick Corey Coleman recovering from an injury.

Two years ago, the thought of Pryor as a potential starting wideout would have been laughable, and it was still unfathomable in 2015. Now it's becoming a reality.

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