The Cleveland Browns have made no secret about their roster-building strategy since putting the franchise in the hands of chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta and executive vice president Sashi Brown. The analytically minded front office has placed a premium on stockpiling draft picks by the bushel and now has nine top-65 selections over the next two years. Of course, those picks matter only if they're translated into actual talent. Terrelle Pryor, 27, who just posted 77 catches and 1,007 yards in his first full season as a wide receiver, seems to represent the type of young cornerstone the Browns would want to keep.
Yet Cleveland's analytics department reportedly soured on Pryor, who left for a below-market one-year deal worth up to $8 million with Washington. The Browns may not have wanted to pay Pryor like a star No. 1 receiver, but at such a team-friendly price tag, did it really make sense to let him walk?
We can look at Pryor's 2016 season through the lens of metrics such as QBR and expected points added (EPA). Cleveland's motley crew of quarterbacks was significantly more efficient and more capable of stretching the field targeting Pryor than any other Browns receiver. In fact, when targeting Pryor, Cleveland quarterbacks posted a QBR that would have led the league last year (granted, this excludes sacks, which quarterbacks would normally get penalized for). Conversely, Cleveland QBs performed similarly to Alex Smith on targets to non-Pryor receivers.
While Pryor failed to reach the end zone in the final seven games of the season, it would be wrong to suggest that he sputtered to the finish line. Dividing his season into four quarters, Pryor's EPA and other per-play metrics remained relatively consistent until a dip in efficiency during the final four games. However, Pryor played the last three while hampered by torn ligaments in his fingers which would eventually require offseason surgery.
So the Browns' anemic passing game was noticeably better when targeting Pryor, and until injuries hampered him in the final month, he remained consistently productive even as defenses adjusted to his game. Cleveland was correct in projecting a bearish market on Pryor, perhaps due to his lack of experience at receiver. In some ways, though, that makes the Browns' decision not to match Washington's offer even more baffling.
Unlike baseball and basketball, football has no widely acknowledged measure of individual value such as WAR or PER. However, approximate value (AV) does a fair job of estimating a player's individual contribution to the overall success of his unit.
To see how much Pryor deserved to earn based on his performance, we can plot his AV in 2016 against his 2017 salary-cap hit (currently projected at $6 million) and compare it to other receivers. Note that we're excluding receivers such as Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans, who are still on their rookie deals, since the market hasn't yet had an opportunity to determine their value. Estimates were used for Robert Woods and Kenny Britt, recent signings whose 2017 cap hits weren't known at the time of publication.
By this visualization, Pryor comes in slightly above the curve. At the moment, he ranks 30th among wide receivers in both categories on the chart, though he'll likely rank lower in cap hit once other free-agent deals are announced. It's not hard to imagine Pryor producing even more value above average in 2017, since he's still early in his development as a receiver. AV is also partially dependent on overall unit success, and by moving to a better offense while keeping his No. 1 role, Pryor has a real chance to look even better from this perspective at this time next year.
Pryor is no sure thing, as his lack of a long-term deal suggests no one else wanted to commit long term to him. But with the most cap space in the league and arguably the least-talented roster in the league, the Browns also had less to lose than anyone by rolling the dice on Pryor. We'll never know exactly how Cleveland's in-house opinions and numbers shaped their decision on Pryor. Still, based on the metrics we have available, it seems the analytics should have supported Pryor, not rejected him.
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