The Redskins are the home of the most clear success story of what can happen when a player bets on himself and wins. Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins has played under the franchise tag these last two seasons after he turned down what he perceived as a lowball long-term offer from Washington. That bet paid off: Cousins has made $44 million in two years, dwarfing Washington’s offer, and this offseason is expected to hit the free-agent market and could sign a deal that will alter the economics of the league.
Unfortunately, the Redskins are also home of the most clear example of what happens when a player bets on himself and loses. Terrelle Pryor, the quarterback who decided he’d be a wide receiver, is heading toward injured reserve after undergoing ankle surgery for an injury he suffered in Week 2. Pryor bet on himself with a $6 million, one-year deal in Washington this offseason in the hopes of making more money next year. It didn’t work out. He managed just 20 catches for 240 yards and one touchdown, falling an astounding 60 catches, 1,010 yards, and nine touchdowns shy of his $2 million contract incentive. With his season over, he’ll hit the free-agent market as a soon-to-be 29-year-old receiver rehabbing an ankle injury with only two seasons of experience catching the ball.
Just one season ago, Pryor completed a stunning metamorphosis from failed NFL quarterback to legit wideout. He entered the 2016 season having trained at wide receiver for barely more than a year and finished with 77 catches, one shy of DeAndre Hopkins. His 1,007 yards were ahead of guys like Michael Crabtree and DeSean Jackson. He even finished as a top-20 receiver in fantasy football.
The numbers matched the eye test. He leveraged his massive size (6-foot-4, 228 pounds) and had a good sense of how to be physical with cornerbacks while not getting flagged for penalties against smaller defenders. Most importantly, he could catch the ball, in and away from his body, developing a sizable catch radius along his massive frame. He wasn’t perfect — his route-running needed work, he could get bumped to the sideline easily, and he had some drops — but those were just nitpicks. If he went from never playing the position to a 1,000-yard campaign in under two years, where would he be in another two years?
Pryor must have been asking the same question. He turned down deals from multiple teams, including a long-term contract with the Browns reportedly worth more than $30 million over four years. Turning down the Cleveland offer was a huge risk. You can get a lot of tattoos for $8 million a year, but Pryor believed he could reach elite receiver money, roughly double that offer, if he topped his 2016 production. Going to D.C. seemed like a great avenue to do that. Washington had just lost its top two receivers, Jackson and Pierre Garçon, in free agency, leaving 214 targets open in an offense that had the second-most yards per play, passing yards, and net yards per pass attempt in 2016. So Pryor bet on himself and signed a one-year deal with Washington worth a guaranteed $6 million in the pursuit of roughly $60 million deal the next offseason.
He lost the bet. Pryor started slow, averaging three catches for 42 yards per game through the Redskins’ first five games. But he was playing on 81.6 percent of the team’s snaps, highest among Washington’s receivers, and his role seemed secure. Surely his struggles could be chalked up to early-season chemistry issues, and the catches and yards would soon follow.
But in Week 7, he was usurped on the depth chart by Josh Doctson, the 2016 first-round draft pick out of TCU. Pryor played just one snap in the first half of a Monday Night Football loss to the Eagles. He reentered the receiver rotation in the second half, but Doctson has held onto the starting job. Since Week 6, Pryor has played only 112 snaps to Doctson’s 286. Pryor explained his struggles after the Eagles game.
“I think it’s just the scheme of the offense,” Pryor said. “It’s a spread around offense, spread the ball around offense.”
He’s right. In Cleveland, Pryor was the top wideout, and the team force-fed him the ball. His 1,007 yards and 77 receptions came on 140 targets, 12th highest in the league. Just look at how similarly Pryor’s numbers last season (among wide receivers with minimum 40 targets) compare with his numbers this season (minimum 20 targets):
2016: 55 percent catch rate (73rd), 7.19 yards per target (67th), 13.08 yards per reception (53rd)
2017: 54.1 percent catch rate (72nd), 6.49 yards per target (79th), 12.0 yards per reception (65th)
Pryor went from Cleveland’s ineptitude to the Redskins’ high-octane offense, and he was the same exact guy. But instead of the 75 targets he had through eight games in 2016, he had just 37 targets in that span this season. The Redskins don’t play from behind as much as the Browns, and they spread the ball out more when they do throw. It was the perfect storm for Pryor’s production to decline.
Pryor bet on himself and lost, which means he’ll just have to bet on himself again this offseason. He’ll likely be playing in a new home in 2018. With the emergence of Doctson, it’s unlikely that Washington will bring him back, and the Browns expressed interest in dealing for him before the trade deadline. This time, he won’t have the luxury of turning down an eight-figure offer, but there’s reason to believe he can still become a true star wideout. He transformed into a legit NFL wide receiver after just two offseasons. He’ll presumably get his ankle healthy. Pryor clawed his way to becoming a 1,000-yard receiver once. It’s possible he can do it again.