From Ken Stabler to Jamarcus Russell, Al Davis drafted some of the league's best and worst quarterbacks at different points in the NFL's history. Nearly two years after Davis' death, quarterback Terrelle Pryor will get his chance to validate the late Raiders owner's final draft choice.
Pryor, taken with a third-round pick in the NFL's 2011 supplemental draft, saw limited playing time in his first two seasons, but will reportedly take the field Sunday as the Raiders' starter. His raw passing statistics look more like Russell's than Stabler's at first glance, but fail to tell the complete story of his contribution to the Raiders' offense.
Pryor has only completed 17 of 32 preseason passes this year, averaging 6.91 yards per attempt. Based on last year's regular-season statistics, Pryor's yards-per-attempt average this preseason would put him at 20th in the league, right behind Jake Locker and right before Philip Rivers.
Factoring in Pryor's running, a central component of his game, puts him in much better statistical company. Combining Pryor's rushing and passing attempts shows he amassed 352 yards of offense on 46 plays. His average of 7.65 yards per play would put him at 8th in the NFL, one spot behind Matt Ryan and one spot above Tom Brady.
More impressive is Pryor's improvement over his play in 2012, when he averaged an abysmal 5.15 yards per play in extremely limited action. Pryor may have been playing against backups for a majority of his preseason snaps, but he was also playing with a supporting cast of backups. For the most part, the statistical boost Pryor may have enjoyed from playing against a lower quality of opponent is negated by having an inferior supporting cast.
Against the Saints, for example, Pryor completed only 1 of 5 passes, a statistic that disguises what was actually a poised and impressive performance. Three of Pryor's incomplete passes were throwaways because the pass rush got through the offensive line so quickly. Pryor's other incompletion was a perfectly-placed deep sideline route -- thrown as Pryor's ankles were hit by a defender -- that his receiver dropped. At numerous other points in the game, Pryor tucked the ball and ran because nobody could get open before his pass protection broke down.
Pryor's mechanical and fundamental development over the offseason are even more impressive than his statistical improvements. Pryor has gotten much better at keeping his feet underneath him and squaring his body properly when throwing on the run, an adjustment that keeps defenses from focusing solely on stopping him on the ground when he escapes the pocket.
Typically, the best way to contain a fast quarterback who can't throw well on the run is to blitz him from his throwing-hand side and keep a player on the other side of the field as a "spy" to stay in front of the quarterback's rushing attempts. The result of such a scheme is usually a quarterback who can't throw or run. With the steps forward Pryor has taken in his mechanics on the run, as well as his ability to keep his eyes upfield when being chased out of the pocket, such a scheme is now much less effective against Pryor because he can still find and exploit the passing windows left open by a defensive scheme to contain his running.
Along with spending more time looking for open receivers before giving up and running, Pryor is getting better at actually finding his receivers. He primarily locked in on his first read last year, making defensive backs' jobs much easier. Pryor now progresses more quickly to his second read, and more quickly locating an open player. He still has room for improvement in this regard, but if he keeps getting better at it at the same rate he did this offseason, he'll continue taking big steps forward by the end of the season.
Not only has Pryor developed a better sense of finding open receivers, but he's demonstrated a better ability to get the ball to them as well. His biggest strength has always been throwing crossing routes over the middle of the field, but now he also throws with good touch on deep sideline routes, although his timing on short sideline timing passes is still a bit off. He also releases the ball at a higher point than he did last year, helping him loft the ball over shallow zone defenders and into the seams of zone defenses..
The increased need to defend Pryor through the air will bring him more opportunities to produce on the ground. He has a great natural sense of when to tuck the ball and run, and he almost never abandons a play too early to run with the ball. He's shown an increased patience for lead-blockers as well, letting linemen pull in front of him and receivers block downfield so he can make bigger gains than if he ran straight into a hole without any lead-blocking.
Like any quarterback, Pryor comes with flaws. His reads still need to get faster, his rhythm on sideline timing routes is still off, and he occasionally drops too far back in the pocket when pressured and given room to step up. His strengths, especially given his mobility, work well enough together to give him a fighting chance as an NFL starting quarterback.
In essence, he's a sandlot-style quarterback like a young Ben Roethlisberger, which bodes well for the Raiders. In his first year as a starter, Roethlisberger won a Super Bowl. The Raiders last won a Super Bowl 30 years ago, and they won't win one this year no matter how well Pryor plays. But if Pryor keeps improving at the rate he has this offseason, Davis' last draft pick can be the impetus for the Raiders rediscovering how to "Just win, baby."