Quarterback drama is never lacking for the Cleveland Browns, but right now, talk isn't focused on the starter or even the backup. Instead, everyone is watching former quarterback Terrelle Pryor try to morph into a wide receiver. And coach Mike Pettine thinks he has a chance.
BEREA, Ohio—The quarterback drama never really ends at Cleveland Browns training camp, but you have to admit, this year's slant is different. Josh McCown and Johnny Manziel look firmly locked in as the team’s starting and backup quarterbacks, respectively, and show no signs of trading places any time soon.
Instead, the role-switching in Cleveland involves an intriguing position change by Terrelle Pryor, the former Raiders starting quarterback who is attempting the ridiculously rare feat of turning himself into an NFL wide receiver—practically overnight. As of mid-June, Pryor was a quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals, his fourth pro team, trying to secure a roster spot. Not even eight weeks later, he's across the Buckeye state in Cleveland’s camp, trying to learn the intricacies of the receiver position, and hoping to flash just enough potential to entice the receiver-needy Browns to find some way to use his supreme athleticism.
“Playing quarterback in the NFL for five years and then switching over, if you really look at it from the outside it sounds crazy,” Pryor said at Browns camp on Tuesday. “But I’ve been blessed with athletic ability. So I thought, ‘OK, I can play wideout. I can get some trick plays, throw some touchdowns, just be an absolute playmaker, a beast, a guy who can do so many different things. I think that’s what I could bring to this team.”
Could Pryor possibly pull this off? Or is this just a feel-good summer novelty act by the Browns on the behalf of the former Ohio State standout? An experiment that has little shot of succeeding and even less potential downside?
“It’s definitely more than an experiment,” said Browns second-year general manager Ray Farmer, the man who eagerly put in the winning waiver claim for Pryor once the Bengals cut him loose. “I think the kid’s got natural ability and he’s already shown enough in my mind of the things that demonstrate he can play [receiver]. The question is he’s got to get in games and then go do it. He’s got to prove that he’s a guy that’s worthy of keeping on this football team. If he is, he’ll make it.”
Browns coach Mike Pettine isn’t one given to hyperbole, and even Pryor missing the past week or so of camp with a hamstring issue that will keep him out of Cleveland’s preseason opener at home against Washington on Thursday night hasn’t dimmed his view of Pryor’s potential as a pass-catcher. After all, the Browns are playing without suspended lead receiver Josh Gordon this season, and thus far free-agent pick-up Dwayne Bowe, the team’s projected No. 1 target, has also been slowed by a balky hamstring early in camp. This is a last-place Browns team that isn’t over-flowing with receiving depth.
“He’s got a chance,” Pettine said. “You would say on paper the odds are long for a guy who hasn’t done it, to just say, ‘Hey, I’m a good athlete and I’m going to just try this.’ It’s not an easy thing, but right from day one he did not look out of place. The thing that gives him a chance is his ball skills. He can catch the football, and he has run after the catch ability. He’s caught short passes and juked guys, and if you would just come out here and nobody had jersey numbers on and you didn’t know who he was, he would fit in with that group.”
Pryor started 10 games with the Raiders over the course of the 2012 and '13 season, and at times in Oakland he displayed enough dual-threat running and passing potential to be considered the team’s quarterback of the present and future. Selected in the third round of the NFL’s 2011 supplemental draft after his Ohio State career ended in off-field controversy, Pryor has bounced from Seattle to Kansas City to Cincinnati to Cleveland since leaving the Raiders after the 2013 season. As each of those NFL opportunities came to an end, Pryor’s frustration grew. So here we are, with him attempting to make a switch that reeks of either boldness, or desperation.
“When I got released from Cincinnati, the coaches and everybody said the same things I’d heard before,’’ Pryor said. “The past three teams I’ve been on, it’s been ‘We just drafted a guy at quarterback. And they were trying to move the young guy up to No. 2.’ It’s too political. The quarterback stuff’s too political for me. I realized I was better than a lot of those guys they were releasing me for. So I’m just like, ‘I’m done. I’m done with that.’ You lose the taste for the position because you don’t get the same respect and you don’t get the same advantage and opportunity as the next man. And that’s what this game’s about, getting the opportunity to find out who the best guy is, and I just never had that.”
Pryor saves some of his strongest words for the Bengals, whose offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson, was once his head coach in Oakland. But even with Jackson’s support, Cincinnati didn’t give Pryor a fair shot at the backup job behind Andy Dalton, he said, because the Bengals drafted ex-Alabama star A.J. McCarron in 2014’s fifth round, and are grooming him for the No. 2 job.
“Cincinnati released me, [and] they did me wrong I feel,” Pryor said. “Seattle released me, and I had a better preseason than their backup guy (Tarvaris Jackson). I was with Hue in Oakland, but it could have been out of his control [in Cincinnati]. The top guys were A.J. McCarron [supporters]. I saw he wasn’t even doing that well in camp this year. It’s funny how things like that happen, but at the end of the day, I’m here now and actually I love this place. I love this team, love the attitude, and we just need some guys who can come in here and who can make some plays.”
New Browns offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was Pryor’s quarterbacks coach in Oakland in 2012-13, and Pettine said when he heard Pryor was willing to move to receiver after the Bengals released him, his first call was to his OC, to test his interest in the acquisition.
“Flip’s first response was I don’t see it, because he wants to play quarterback,” Pettine said. “I think Flip thought we were going to go ahead and take him and try to convert him mentally and physically, and I said, ‘No, the kid’s already committed. He wants to do it.’ And he said if that’s the case, I’m all for it. Because the guy’s an explosive athlete.”
Pryor had resisted the move to receiver in recent years when it was suggested, saying in Seattle in 2014: “I don’t know how to catch. I’ve been a quarterback my whole life.’’
But after Cincinnati gave up on him, he finally decided to give the transition a try. After the impetus he received from one particular person.
“It was actually my kid’s mother, my ex-girlfriend who suggested it,’’ Pryor said. “I texted her and said, ‘Hey, I got released again.’ And she waited about 30 minutes and then replied, ‘I think you should try and do something else. Try playing wideout. I think you’d be real good at it.’”
According to Pryor, his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, was contacted by “25 teams” after Pryor declared his willingness to play receiver. “I know Dallas was big in it,” he said. “I think the Patriots were on it. That’s where I thought I was going to end up going, because they called a lot, Dallas and New England.”
Instead it was his homestate Browns, and Cleveland’s receiving depth chart could be his most forgiving route to a roster spot. Bowe, Brian Hartline, Andrew Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel would seem locks to make it, and that puts Pryor in competition with the likes of Travis Benjamin, Marlon Moore, Josh Lenz, and others. His best shot could come if Cleveland decides he gives them in essence a No. 3 emergency quarterback as well, with the Browns carrying second-year passer Connor Shaw on the practice squad this year.
“To me if he’s at the point where there are wideouts we feel good about, and we also feel he’s not ready, that’s another way to kind of do the math,” Pettine said. “If you’re going to keep three [quarterbacks], he’s essentially the third spot, even though you’re not going to rep it. Then you’ve got other options as far as getting guys back via the practice squad.”
Searching for a precedent for what Pryor is attempting at the professional level, the interesting career of Marlin Briscoe comes to mind; Briscoe was drafted by Denver in the 14th round in 1968, and wound up starting five games at quarterback that season, becoming the AFL’s first black starting quarterback. Briscoe had played quarterback collegiately at Nebraska-Omaha, but the 5'11", 177-pound speedster was asked to play at cornerback for Denver, after opening camp at No. 8 on the team’s quarterback depth chart. Briscoe’s 14 touchdown passes that season remains the Broncos’ rookie record and his 17.1 yards per completion led the AFL.
When Briscoe joined the Buffalo Bills in 1969, he didn’t get the chance to compete at quarterback, but he eventually built a fairly impressive receiving career for himself in the NFL, playing until '76. He was a member of the back-to-back Super Bowl champion Dolphins of 1972–73, and posted a 1,036-yard receiving season in Buffalo in '70.
Pryor may lack knowing the nuances and subtleties of the position, but he doesn’t lack for confidence in his athletic ability, or his work ethic. I could see the Browns developing a relatively small package of plays to best utilize his skills, sending him deep to pull down passes lobbed his way, or keeping defenses honest with calls that use his arm, his speed and the jumping ability he put on display in his stellar high school basketball career.
“I think it’s the first time ever that a starting quarterback became a receiver, an outside receiver,” Pryor said. “There’s some guys who did it coming out of college as a quarterback, but they were 5'10" to 6'0". I’m 6'5", I’ve run a 4.32, and I can jump over people. That’s fun in itself. And I’m competitive. I’ll block you. I’ll hit you. I’m going to do whatever I have to do. If I have to beat you up, whatever I’ve got to do to beat you.
“I know I’ve got to grow in some areas on the field in the receiver spot. I understand that, but I think with my athletic prowess and my competitiveness and my ability to catch the ball, I can help the Browns.”
Pryor’s first step toward making the team is to soon make it back on the field, and getting past his nagging hamstring issue, a scenario he promises will happen by next week. After working out this offseason with the likes of Randy Moss, Antonio Brown, Mike Evans and Gordon, Pryor has quickly come to see himself as a receiver. Now he needs to prove he can look like one in a game situation. And if it’s back in Ohio, where his quarterbacking career first reached stardom, all the sweeter.
“I’ll just show people,” he said. “But they hear the buzz. There’s a big buzz going around. I’m happy here, and these fans, they love me here. It’s every single day people scream my name. Every day is a work in progress, but I can’t wait to get back out there. I’m itching.”
No one can be sure exactly where Pryor’s second act in the NFL is headed. But this year in Browns camp, there’s the kind of comeback underway that we’ve never really witnessed before.