RICHMOND, Va.—”You are the quarterback,” the midget league football coach told him, “because you are our best player and you need to have the ball in your hands on every play.”
And so he was a quarterback—ordained to call the play, take the snap and make the throw. It was he who should set the tone, give direction and take the bouquets and bullets. When he looked in the mirror, he saw a quarterback and only a quarterback.
Being a quarterback was more than something he did to play a game. It was an identity. It was a lifestyle.
Now, the quarterback is running a go route. He is wearing white leggings under red shorts with a Redskins logo that make him look taller than an A-frame ladder. He is covering so much ground with each giant step that it’s impossible to gauge how fast he’s going. He is underthrown—again. But he slows down and makes a nice catch, another big play in a training camp full of them.
The quarterback, it seems, is one hell of a wide receiver.
In 2008, Terrelle Pryor was Scout.com‘s No. 1 quarterback recruit in the nation. Among the coaches making pitches to him were Oregon’s Chip Kelly, Florida’s Urban Meyer and Alabama’s Nick Saban. Penn State’s Joe Paterno, then 81, made his first home visit in two years to recruit him.
He chose Ohio State and became a three-year starter and the Rose Bowl MVP.
When Bengals coach Marvin Lewis asked him before the 2011 supplemental draft if he would consider a position switch to wide receiver, the quarterback said no thank you.
His focus was more in line with Raiders owner Al Davis‘. “You will be a star,” Davis told him, meaning a star quarterback. Pryor would become the last player drafted in Davis’ career.
When Pryor lined up at quarterback for his first practice with the Raiders, then-Raiders coach Hue Jackson said, “He looks like a quarterback, feels like a quarterback, sounds like a quarterback…”
But Pryor’s pro quarterback career did not start well. He was suspended for the first five games of his rookie year for selling memorabilia when he was in college. Davis, his sponsor, passed away while Pryor was serving his suspension. And Jackson, the coach who thought he looked, felt and sounded like a quarterback, was fired after Pryor’s first season.
In year two, Pryor didn’t get many looks playing behind Carson Palmer. Before his third season, he enlisted throwing coach Tom House to overhaul his mechanics. He was named the starter and in his first four games had a 97.6 passer rating. But then it was 44.2 in his next four, and Pryor was benched.
After the season, the Raiders traded him to the Seahawks for a seventh-round pick. The Seahawks eventually chose Tarvaris Jackson over Pryor to be Russell Wilson‘s backup and asked Pryor to play wide receiver. Not for me, he said. He was cut.
“I don’t know how to catch,” he told Jerry Brewer for the Seattle Times. “I don’t know how to run the ball as a running back. I’ve been a quarterback my whole life.”
He worked out for the Bengals, Eagles, Giants and Redskins but sat out the season. When he visited the Redskins, head coach Jay Gruden asked him to work out at wide receiver. Nah, the quarterback said. The Chiefs signed him in January then cut him in May. The Bengals signed him in May but cut him in June.
Pryor’s accuracy, footwork and consistency were issues.
“His primary strength as a quarterback was as a runner,” says Al Saunders, who was the Raiders offensive coordinator in Pryor’s first season and a senior offensive assistant in his next two. “Quarterbacks who are used to using their legs more than the accuracy of a pure dropback quarterback sometimes have a difficult time making that change to a conventional offense. Terrelle was that way. He could throw the ball a mile, but his pocket presence and the patience in the pocket probably wasn’t at the level it needed to be for him to continue to accelerate his play at that position.”
If Pryor was going to fulfill Davis’ prediction, something would have to change.
With rare athleticism, Pryor was not a typical quarterback. There were more athletes with his size, speed and athleticism at another position.
ESPN analyst Jon Gruden says Pryor is “probably one of the most interesting athletes I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.”
“Freakishly talented,” Redskins receivers coach Ike Hilliard calls him.
After playing against him last year, then-Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis told reporters that Pryor is “one of the best athletes in the NFL today.”
“He’s as gifted athletically as anybody in the league in terms of his ability to move and body control,” Saunders says.
At his pro day, the 6’4″ Pryor ran a 4.38 40-yard dash and vertical-jumped 31 inches. He was rated the 39th-best basketball recruit by ESPN in 2008, 14 spots higher than Klay Thompson.
And one more thing. He wears size XXXXL gloves.
Pryor could have been like Tim Tebow and refused to be anything other than what he always thought he was. He could have been proud and jobless. But he wanted to play football more than he wanted to hold fast to the image of what he thought he was supposed to be.
Being traded once and cut three times can lead to hard realizations.
“Changing positions was probably my only chance to play football,” Pryor says.
In the summer of 2015, Pryor wandered onto the stadium field of Penn Trafford High School in Harrison City, Pennsylvania, not far from his hometown of Jeannette. Tim Cortazzo, a former football coach who runs FSQ Sports Training, was working with some wide receivers. Pryor recognized him, as they had played for competing teams when they were in high school. Pryor told him he needed “a couple drills” for wide receivers.
After about 30 minutes of work, Pryor asked what Cortazzo was doing the next day. From then on, Pryor and Cortazzo worked for about three hours every day.
“He was so raw,” Cortazzo says. “I treated it like a kid coming up to me and saying, ‘I want to learn to play wide receiver and I’ve never done it before.’”
The first thing Cortazzo showed him was how to line up in a wide receiver stance. Then, how to get off the line. They moved on. Eliminating false steps. Positioning his hands correctly for the catch. How to come out of a break.
At first, Pryor walked. Then he jogged. Finally, he ran.
He stumbled a number of times, though.
“I’d give him tight cone drills where he had to hit sharp angles,” Cortazzo says. “He’d complain about it. ‘I’m too big for this. I can’t do this.’”
But Pryor didn’t give up.
Pryor’s performance in training camp with the Browns that summer was promising, but he was let go before the first game. He returned to Cortazzo. They worked for nearly three months, and then the Browns called him back in December. Being without a team for that period was “a blessing in disguise,” for Pryor, Cortazzo says.
Some special athletes take their abilities for granted and don’t work as hard as lesser athletes who know they have to outwork competitors to have a chance.
The quarterback was not one of them. The wide receiver is not either.
“I haven’t been around many players at any position who dedicated themselves from a time standpoint to learn their skills as much as Terrelle did last year,” says Saunders, a 47-year coaching veteran who was reunited with Pryor in Cleveland as the Browns receivers coach. “I would be walking out of the building late at night, and Terrelle would be in the receiver room looking at video. The next day, his day off, he’d come in with play ideas. He was first one in, last to leave.”
Cortazzo and Pryor studied great wide receivers of all kinds, including Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, Antonio Brown, Larry Fitzgerald and Julio Jones.
“I love Julio’s physical play, how he gets off the press and how he’s physical after catching the ball,” Pryor says. “I love watching Antonio, how sneaky he is and how smooth he is, in and out of his routes.”
Pryor hasn’t just studied tape of Brown; he has also worked out with him frequently. He also trained with Randy Moss.
When the Redskins signed Pryor in March, quarterback Kirk Cousins texted him and asked if he wanted to meet at Jon Gruden’s facility in Tampa for three days of workouts and study. Pryor said yes…but he wanted to do it for four days instead of three.
When the Redskins’ offseason work had concluded and players had gone their separate ways, Cousins knew Pryor was still at it thanks to social media:
When Cousins teased Pryor about it, Pryor said, “Hey you are seeing my movements all summer long, coming in and out of cuts. That has to count for something.”
Cousins acknowledged it did. “It was comforting to know when I was headed to the beach and I looked at my phone, I saw Terrelle was out running cone drills,” Cousins says.
In training camp, Pryor has made a point to sit next to Cousins during evening meetings when the skill players are watching seven-on-seven practice tape. He wants to think like Cousins.
Pryor wants to do everything he can as a wide receiver to experience the greatness he was supposed to experience as a quarterback.
During lulls in practice, Pryor lies on the ground and has someone throw him footballs so he can learn to catch from odd angles. Or he stands and has tight end Vernon Davis harass him and hang on to him as he tries to make catches. After practice, he works with trainers on core strengthening.
He catches 400 balls from the JUGS machine every day.
“It’s part of the craft, and it’s setting the foundation for this team,” Pryor says. “Every single day, you have to come out and work. Success doesn’t just come. I do it for myself to work on different ways to catch, but also so my teammates see you always have to work harder. When you are doing things right, other guys see that. And I never want to get outworked by anybody.”
The quarterback in Pryor still is compelled to lead, and the way he works is a reflection of that.
“As a former quarterback, he likes to take charge,” Cousins says. “Even though he is a receiver now, he still voices his opinion and shows leadership.”
Last season in Cleveland, Pryor still was figuring out how to be a wide receiver, but he led the Browns with 77 catches and 1,007 yards.
In the offseason, Pryor became a free agent. He took a one-year, $6 million deal with incentives, happy to bet on himself and the Redskins.
Jay Gruden said Pryor didn’t have any mental mistakes in his first two weeks of training camp.
It helps that the Redskins offense and the Browns offense are very similar. It also helps that he already has many of the tools to think like a veteran wide receiver. As a quarterback, he learned to read the triangle and study the big picture. He had to understand route concepts and spacing between receivers. He had to be aware of where the safeties were and what they might do and how coverages can change. All of that has been useful when he’s split out wide.
Pryor also benefits from his collection of nine playbooks from different offensive coordinators—three from the Raiders, two from the Browns and one from the Seahawks, Chiefs, Bengals and Redskins.
“It has helped me to play with so many offenses, especially with the way I had to break down offenses as a quarterback,” Pryor says. “I had to keep relearning things. It has really helped me put concepts together.”
What he still is learning is the physical part of the position—getting off the line of scrimmage, running refined routes, creating separation from defensive backs downfield, tracking the football in the air and going up and getting it.
Since throwing his last pass in OTAs for the Bengals, Pryor has come so far. Cousins even has seen growth from March to August.
“He has a lot of room for improvement still, which is scary,” Jay Gruden says. “He had 1,000 yards last year in his first year playing wideout in the NFL for God’s sake. So he probably isn’t even close to what he is capable of doing.”
As a wide receiver, Pryor runs much more in practice and in training than he had been accustomed to. That’s OK, though, because running is what he always did best, even when he was a quarterback.
The way he works out is very different—more bands and light weights, fewer barbells, dumbbells and heavy weights. He has lost 12 pounds since his quarterback days and now weighs 226. And that has Pryor convinced he is faster than ever.
“I will be getting double-teamed,” Pryor says. “They aren’t going to stay on an island with me one-on-one.”
Redskins quarterbacks did not overthrow Pryor a single time in the first two weeks of camp.
“He’s such a long strider,” Jay Gruden says. “It looks like he’s jogging half the time, but he’s eating up so much ground. The quarterbacks float it out there, and he is outrunning them by eight to 10 yards, and he has to slow down every time.”
The thing is, Pryor still makes the catches with those gigantic hands in the XXXXL gloves. “I don’t drop balls,” Pryor says.
It all adds up to a player who has been the talk of Redskins camp.
“I’m truly excited for him and to watch him play this year,” Saunders says. “I think he has no limits at that position. I would think he would have a phenomenal year for Washington.”
His coach tempers the expectations, as coaches will do. Gruden points out the Redskins have also want to throw to tight end Jordan Reed and wide receivers Josh Doctson and Jamison Crowder. Pryor was thrown to 140 times last season, 12th-most in the league. “He probably won’t get that many here,” Gruden says. “You never know, but less is more for us because it means we are controlling the game and running the ball. If you have that many targets, to me it means you are behind and throwing to catch up.”
Besides, Gruden might need Pryor to be his emergency quarterback.
Pryor will answer that call if needed, but he’s not counting on getting it. Not anymore.
The quarterback is a wide receiver now, fully and completely.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.
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