By Scott Henry (Twitter: @4QuartersRadio)
Optimistic words continue to filter out about the end of the NFL lockout, heralding the possible beginning of free agency, training camps, and the preseason. Also looming will be the Supplemental Draft, where former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor will learn his NFL destination.
When he gets there, however, the team that drafts him may not be so interested in stationing him behind center. Pryor has been projected as a more intriguing prospect at tight end or wide receiver than at QB. Simple math dictates that a change of positions may not be a terrible career move for Pryor.
Most NFL teams carry three quarterbacks, leaving only 96 positions available for which rookies can compete. Meanwhile, receiver, defensive back, or running back beckon as positions with much deeper depth charts, ergo more potential job openings.
Marlin Briscoe’s example shows players that ex-quarterbacks can carve out fine careers for themselves at other positions. Briscoe became one of the AFL’s first black starting quarterbacks, but was abruptly shoved to wide receiver, then released, by Broncos coach Lou Saban before the 1969 season. Undaunted, he played eight more seasons as a receiver with five teams, including the undefeated 1972 Dolphins, finishing his career with over 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns.
Some recent college quarterbacks have taken Briscoe’s approach to heart, thriving at other positions when personnel evaluators suggest changes. These 11 players let prospects like Pryor know that leaving the pocket permanently doesn’t need to mean leaving the game.
11. Scott Frost, DB (1998-2003)
Frost led Nebraska to the 1997 national title, but as many other quarterbacks have shown, the Husker option attack was not optimal preparation for running a NFL offense. Most former quarterbacks opt for the other end of the pigskin rainbow, the life of a receiver. Frost took the opposite approach, wanting to see what it was like for defenders making life difficult for the passer.
As a safety and special teams player for the Jets, Browns, and Buccaneers, Frost recorded 54 tackles, 30 coming in 2000 with New York. His lone interception came on September 17, 2000 against Buffalo’s Rob Johnson. He also racked up his only career sack that season, bringing down Oakland Raider Rich Gannon.
As a result of his moving from one side of the ball to the other, Frost’s coaching career has also moved back and forth between meeting rooms. He was linebackers coach and later co-defensive coordinator at Northern Iowa before being hired to his current position as the receivers coach at Oregon.
He’s also a handy man to help defuse a fight, as he was seen on national television trying to restrain Ducks running back LeGarrette Blount after Blount touched off the infamous brawl with Boise State in 2009. Frost proved himself a far cry from the stereotypical “I don’t like contact” quarterback.
10. Brad Smith, RB/WR/KR (2006-present)
Smith’s legs were his big selling point during his four seasons at Missouri. As the first Division I player to amass 8,000 yards passing and 4,000 rushing, his athleticism was easy to spot.
Drafted by the Jets in the fourth round of the 2006 Draft, Smith seemed perfectly fine with playing wherever the Jets asked him to play. He’s established himself as a game-changing kick returner, and also a solid kick coverage man, recording 60 special teams tackles in 76 career games.
He’s been frequently used in the Jets’ “Tigercat” package, but despite his pedigree, he’s thrown only seven pro passes. It’s likely that Smith will be somewhere else in 2011, so his landing spot will have a large impact on how many different hats he’ll continue to wear.
9. Matt Jones, WR (2005-2010)
Jones’ athleticism earned him the admiring nickname “The Freak” from attendees of the 2005 NFL Draft Combine. At 6’6” and 237 pounds, he was still able to run a 4.4-second 40-yard dash and post a vertical jump near 40 inches. He was being slotted as a wide receiver after setting the SEC’s career quarterback rushing record with 2,535 yards, a record that has since been obliterated by Tim Tebow of Florida.
He was selected 21st overall in the 2005 NFL Draft, ahead of such players as Aaron Rodgers, Roddy White, and Lofa Tatupu. Worse for the Jags, it took him three seasons to amass 100 catches as he struggled to get acclimated to a new position on a run-oriented team.
In 2008, it finally seemed that Jones was getting the hang of being a pro receiver. Through 12 games, he had recorded 65 catches for 761 yards. His season was then ended by a three-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. He has not played in a regular-season game since.
Jones turned down an invitation to try out for the Redskins last November, and appears to have chosen retirement.
8. Ronald Curry, WR (2002-2008)
Curry’s high school accomplishments were impressive enough to overshadow the budding career of another future pro that played at a rival high school. That player was Michael Vick. Curry was also the MVP of the 1998 McDonald’s All-American basketball game, and his hoops potential led him to attend North Carolina instead of his previously favored school, Virginia.
Despite a successful career as the Tar Heels’ signal-caller, Curry lasted until the seventh round of the 2002 Draft, ending up with the Oakland Raiders. He took three years to break into the Raiders’ rotation as a receiver, but in 2004, he broke out with 50 catches for 679 yards in only 11 games before tearing an Achilles’ tendon. Re-injuring the same tendon in 2005 cost him all but two games.
Once the tendon was finally repaired, Curry led the Raiders in receptions in 2006 despite only starting four games. He repeated the feat in 2007, but foot surgery hindered his preparations for the 2008 season. New Raiders coach Lane Kiffin appeared to have little interest in using him.
Curry started 10 games in ’08, but only recorded 19 catches. Being cut by the Raiders led to Curry bouncing from the Lions to the Rams to a tryout with the Ravens, but he was not seen in the NFL again after his run-in with Kiffin.
7. Patrick Crayton, WR (2004-present)
Crayton was already a receiver for his first three years at Northwestern Oklahoma State, but he was pressed into quarterback service as a senior. Needless to say, his passing exploits against NAIA competition were not impressive enough to get him reps in training camp after he was chosen in the seventh round of the 2004 Draft.
Similar to Ronald Curry, an early injury slowed Crayton’s development with the Cowboys, but by his fourth year (2007), he was starting 13 of the 15 games that he played. The king’s ransom that Jerry Jones paid to acquire Roy Williams from the Lions in 2008 dictated that he had to take Crayton’s starting position. Miles Austin’s 2009 explosion also spelled a trip to the bench.
Crayton also established himself as a danger on punt returns, running two of them back in 2009 after Allen Rossum (signed to take over Crayton’s job at that position) was injured on his first runback as a Cowboy.
Finally, Crayton could take no more and demanded a release in 2010, after which he signed with the San Diego Chargers. After the way he’d been dealt with in Big D, not many rational fans could blame him.
6. Josh Cribbs, RB/WR/KR (2005-present)
Cribbs’ athleticism was off the charts all the way back to high school. He lettered in baseball, swimming and basketball in addition to football at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. At Kent State, his career followed a similar path to that of Antwaan Randle El’s at Indiana, struggling to complete a high percentage of his passes and finishing with a mediocre touchdown/interception ratio.
He wasn’t even drafted in 2005, signing with the Browns as a street free agent. He only touched the ball once from scrimmage, but established himself as a fearsome kickoff returner immediately. Cribbs ran one back 90 yards in his fourth pro game, starting a streak of five straight seasons with at least one return score, second only to Dante Hall’s six. His 30.7-yard average in 2007 was the best since Ron Brown’s 1985 season among return men with 25 attempts or more.
When the Wildcat came into vogue in 2008, the Browns understood they had the perfect weapon to implement their own package. Cribbs ran for almost 550 yards in ’08 and ’09. He began catching more passes in 2010, averaging 12.7 yards on his 23 grabs. It’s beginning to appear that if the Browns want him to make contact with the ball any more, he may have to work on his kicking.
5. Drew Bennett, WR (2001-08)
Bennett was a quarterback in high school who passed on playing at Princeton to walk on at UCLA. He didn’t see much action in college until his junior year, when he was pressed into a rotation with starter Cory Paus. He had only occasionally played receiver when he was sent an invitation to training camp with the Tennessee Titans.
Injuries to drafted rookies Justin McCareins and Eddie Berlin allowed Bennett to see steady action as the Titans’ third receiver over his first three seasons, but it was his fourth year (2004) that he really burst onto the scene. Oddly, it began with an injury not to another receiver, but to the starting quarterback.
Steve McNair struggled with nagging injuries in the last half of the ’04 season, frequently giving way to undrafted backup Billy Volek. In a three-game span in December against the Colts, Chiefs, and Raiders, Bennett hauled in 28 passes for 517 yards and eight touchdowns.
Unfortunately for Bennett and the Titans, that was the peak of his career. After that season, he had only one more multi-TD game and three games of more than 100 yards. Bennett finished his career with the Rams in 2008. His final totals topped out at 307 catches, 4412 yards and 28 scores, highly respectable figures for a man who can justly claim that 10 percent of his career was accomplished in three games.
4. Bert Emanuel, WR (1994-2001)
At 5-10 and 180 pounds, Emanuel clearly lacked prototype QB size, despite a respectable career at Rice. The Falcons made him a second-round pick with every intention of grooming him at receiver.
He hit the ground running in 1994, racking up 46 catches for 649 yards and four touchdowns, then amassing at least 900 yards in each of the next three seasons. After that solid start, he left Atlanta to sign with Tampa Bay as a free agent. Unfortunately for him, being away from the Falcons’ frenetic run-and-shoot offense took the wind out of his statistical sails, but he did get to experience a playoff win for the first time.
After that win in 1999, the Bucs sat one game away from the Super Bowl, but they were matched against the force of nature that was the St. Louis Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf. In a monumental upset, the game’s final score was 11-6, and what could have been Bert’s moment of glory turned out to make him a footnote in the NFL rulebook.
Emanuel caught a pass at the Rams’ 22-yard-line in the final minute, but the referee overturned the catch because the tip of the ball touched the ground. The rule was changed for the following season, and became popularly known as the “Bert Emanuel Rule.”
After another couple of seasons, Emanuel retired and began marketing his own line of clothing, called KAOS. In 2009, the company signed a deal to make clothing for the U.S. Army, including sports bras for the female soldiers. Bert Emanuel can truthfully say that few do more to support the troops than he does.
3. Antwaan Randle El, WR/KR (2002-present)
Randle El completed barely half his passes at Indiana, throwing as many interceptions as touchdowns. He also averaged over 100 rushing yards per game and scored 21 times, two more touchdowns than he threw. It seemed obvious that his future was not as a passer in the pros.
The Steelers picked him late in the second round of the 2002 draft, and unlike players such as Jones and Curry, he saw the field immediately and took to the new position well. Randle El accounted for over 600 yards from scrimmage and also averaged 22.9 yards on kickoff returns, recording a 99-yard score in his fifth pro game.
Randle El’s been productive in every area of the stat sheet during his nine-year career. He’s even gotten to throw 27 passes, more than anyone else on this list. He’s completed 22 of those for six touchdowns and no interceptions. The biggest play of his career came on a 43-yard throw to Hines Ward that blew open Super Bowl XL.
In nine years with the Steelers, Redskins, and the Steelers again, Randle El has caught 15 touchdowns and recorded five on punt returns, in addition to the six passes. During the 2008 playoffs, he also did some reporting for the NFL Network, tipping his hand as to what he’d like to do after his playing days.
2. Anquan Boldin, WR (2003-present)
Counting Boldin as a former quarterback requires a bit of a stretch, as Bobby Bowden rarely had a use for him behind center at Florida State. For his college career, he completed 7-of-16 for 111 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile, he caught 118 passes, 21 of them for scores. Needless to say, he was not a second-round pick for any of his passing skills.
Some players are said to make an immediate impact, but Boldin rewrote the record book the first time he took an NFL field. His 217 receiving yards against the Detroit Lions set the record for most receiving yards in a debut and tied Billy Sims for most yards from scrimmage in a debut. His 101 receptions remain a rookie record.
Boldin is not one to shy away from contact, and that trait has cost him 17 games over his eight-year career. Despite missing two games in 2005, he still recorded 102 catches and 1402 yards, making his season one of only 31 in NFL history to finish at over 100 receiving yards per game.
After still being treated as Larry Fitzgerald’s caddy instead of the top receiver that his stats would seem to suggest, Boldin was traded to Baltimore for a package of draft picks. His season was subpar by his standards (64 catches, 837 yards, seven TD’s), but he did become the fastest player to reach 600 receptions, doing it in his 98th game.
1. Hines Ward, WR (1998-present)
Ward was recruited to Georgia as a quarterback after starring in a high-powered shotgun offense in high school. Early on, he subbed in at running back for injured starter Terrell Davis and made the most of his opportunity. It wasn’t until late in his sophomore season that he got QB action, and by then, he’d stopped practicing with the quarterbacks and had little grasp of the QB’s playbook. Still, he rallied and posted 413 yards against Virginia in the Peach Bowl.
All the shifting around wasn’t great for his draft stock, and he lasted until the 92nd pick, late in the third round, before being taken by the Steelers. By his second year, he was tied for the team lead in receptions. Once he adapted to life opposite newcomer Plaxico Burress, the offense blossomed and produced plenty of catches for both receivers. From 2001 to 2003, Hines recorded 94, 112, and 95 catches, establishing himself as a feared target.
In 2005, he became the Steelers’ all-time leader in receptions, passing Hall-of-Famer John Stallworth. He capped that year by hauling in the aforementioned bomb from Antwaan Randle El in Super Bowl XL, a play that clinched the Super Bowl MVP award for Ward.
Ward has twice been named the NFL’s dirtiest player in polls of his peers, stemming from his habit of laying crushing blocks from the sides of his opponents. Part of the disdain could also stem from defenders’ shame at being routinely laid out by a former quarterback.
All of these athletes had the same kind of physical skills in their prime that Terrelle Pryor possesses now. Whether he can capture lightning in a bottle and maintain a decent NFL career the way these players did appears completely up to him.