Terrelle Pryor’s First Full Year as a Wide Receiver Was Excellent
The Beach Boys made their names on songs like “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “I Get Around,” bubblegum pop odes to carefree living.
However, in 1966, lead creative force Brian Wilson presented the surf rock sensations with reams of paper upon which he had scrawled entire compositions and poetry. Gone was the sand and surf and shiny superficiality; this was something entirely different: Wilson had envisioned their seminal album, Pet Sounds, the first rock concept album and one experimenting with music production, instrumentalism, and so on, which would lay the foundations for American progressive rock and change the course of music history.
Sometimes, in order to be great, you have to try something radically different.
That’s what Cleveland Browns wide receiver Terrelle Pryor figured out over the past year, when he hit a career dead-end in the NFL while trying to pursue his college position of quarterback. He had two years of average NFL production (and exceptional fantasy value) as part of the Oakland Raiders’ quarterback committee, but he was out of football for the 2014 season.
In 2015, Pryor resurfaced with the Browns as a wide receiver for the last few games of the year, and this year, he lit the world on fire.
A gleaming bright spot in the midst of a 1-15 Browns’ season, Pryor broke out in a big way in 2016 and proved to us not only that he belongs in the NFL but also that he can do it all.
I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times
It seemed bizarre to some that Pryor was unable to find quarterback jobs after a dynamic 2013 season. It shouldn’t have been, though; by numberFire’s signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP), Pryor had a rough year that year when dropping back.
NEP is a metric that describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to his team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.
Among the 39 quarterbacks to drop back at least 200 times in 2013, Pryor’s Passing NEP per drop back was third-worst. That first year as a starting quarterback earned him -0.09 Passing NEP per drop back, have placing his rookie potential somewhere around Christian Ponder and Trent Edwards (both -0.10 Passing NEP per drop back in their rookie years).
It’s no surprise that most of his value production came through his incredible rushing ability and field vision, when we consider big plays like this 93-yard touchdown scramble against the Pittsburgh Steelers. With that kind of intelligence mixed with athleticism, it’s no surprise that NFL coaches asked Pryor to play wide receiver.
Thank goodness he finally decided to.
We’ve seen former college quarterbacks convert to NFL receiver all over the place: Braxton Miller is the latest example, but Julian Edelman, Randall Cobb, Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El, Anquan Boldin, the G.O.A.T. Joe Webb, and many more have made the transition in the pros.
The first difference is that none of them have simultaneously had Pryor’s size and athleticism working in their favor.
Pryor -- who stands 6’4”, 225 pounds and runs a 4.38-second 40-yard dash -- compares pretty favorably in terms of athleticism to the likes of Calvin Johnson, Vincent Jackson, Julio Jones, and Demaryius Thomas.
However, when Pryor was first working as a wideout in Browns training camp, our own Aaron Watson noted his poor change-of-direction (7.20 three-cone drill), that comps Pryor closer “to Kelvin Benjamin with a lot more top end speed”.
The second difference between Pryor and his conversion peers is that Pryor made it to the NFL as a quarterback and then transitioned to wideout in the prime of his professional career. In fact, Pro Football Reference’s Play Index confirms the last time a player before Pryor was active that had even 100 career passing attempts and 50 career receptions was Marlin Briscoe, who played his final snap in 1976. Among the 7 others are Hall of Fame talents like Bill Dudley, Tony Canadeo, and Charley Trippi.
Pryor is a true Swiss-army-knife throwback with some impressive company in both the old school and modern eras.
Wouldn’t It Be Nice
But let’s cut to the chase: how good was Terrelle Pryor in 2016?
In his first full receiving year, the 27-year old Pryor racked up 1,007 yards and 4 touchdowns on 77 catches (140 targets), with five 90-yard receiving games. But that’s not all.
If we compare Pryor to other receivers this year in terms of Reception NEP, he holds up under analytical scrutiny as well.
The table below shows Pryor’s production by our analytics, as well as his ranks among the 68 wideouts with at least 75 targets in each category.
Pryor racked up a ton of value, easily leading the Browns’ receivers in Reception NEP, Reception NEP per target, and Reception Success Rate (the percent of plays on which positive NEP is created).
When compared to the best of the rest of the league, he produced at an average-or-better level in each measure, which should impress us quite a bit.
Here's the thing, though: it’s no surprise that Julio Jones ranks first among receivers in Reception Success Rate or Reception NEP per target when we consider that his quarterback, Matt Ryan, also tops the tables in those analytics on the passing side.
That Pryor was a top-tier wide receiver with a bottom-quarter passing offense in terms of Passing NEP (26th), Passing NEP per drop back (26th), and Passing Success Rate (30th) is absolutely unbelievable.
His successes were plenty on the fantasy gridiron, too: in standard scoring formats, Pryor’s 127 fantasy points were 20th-best this year. If a finger injury and Robert Griffin III's return under center hadn’t derailed him late in the season, too, Pryor was on pace for 145 standard fantasy points -- which would have put him just outside the top-10 in fantasy.
When we factor in that he suffered with a bad offensive situation, with little to no scoring (five touchdowns or fewer), few catchable passes (below 55 percent catch rate), but still high volume (at least 100 targets), Pryor’s fantasy season comes in 14th among 178 similar wide receivers since 1992.
This was a breakout season in every sense of the word for Pryor. While his peripherals (low catch rate, only average Reception NEP per target) may seem a bit worrisome, these are actually impressive when comparing them to the offense he played for, and Pryor could surpass his incredible production with an improvement in the Cleveland quarterback situation for 2017.
It’s been a surprising journey thus far, but Terrelle Pryor has revolutionized our expectations for positional conversion in NFL. And that’s pretty sweet music to our ears.