In almost every mock draft you see these days, Louisville safety Calvin Pryor resides in the first round. If you watch just a game or two of his tape, it’s easy to see why a team would want to add this literal “impact” player. Watch him for a few games more and a larger pattern emerges: Pryor adds some elements to the defense that burn brightly, but the target on his back will glow if he is left exposed. Pryor is the classic draft prospect who will be a success if set up correctly, and a failure if he doesn’t have the supporting cast to allow him to play a role specifically suited for his strengths and weaknesses. Is that worth a first round pick?
Closing Speed - Pryor is that blur that comes in from offscreen to destroy a ballcarrier. He can also cover a lot of ground to intercept or break up a pass once he gets a bead on it. He ran a 4.58 at the Combine, but Pryor is much faster than the when he has missile lock-on engaged.
Big Hitter, The Lama - Pryor generates a lot of force and unleashes it on his target. He can cause fumbles and separate the ball from the receiver at the moment of arrival. His hits set the tone for his defense, and he can fire up the home crowd. Pryor seems to load up some of his biggest hits early in the first series to send a message to the opponent.
Intimidation - Combine that hitting and closing speed, and you have a player who makes receivers look over their shoulder and get alligator arms when they are going over the middle. Again, this will greatly appeal to a team that sees Kam Chancellor and says, “we want to add that attitude to our defense”.
Run Defense - In addition to being able to streak into the action to have an effect on a run play despite being a long distance from the line of scrimmage at the snap, Pryor does a lot of things that make him function more like an extra linebacker against the run. He will fight through blocks to make tackles, give up his body to set the edge or gum up a run, and he also shoots gaps very well.
Ball Thief - Pryor has some of the best natural hands and ball skills of any defensive back in this class, including corners. He can time leaps and control his body in the air like a wide receiver. He is also aggressive after the interception and can make big returns.
After running down those positives, Pryor seems like a shoo-in first rounder. What’s not to like?
Single-Mindedness/Straight Lines - Pryor is a single-minded player on the field - as long as he has a target. See target, destroy target. Without a target, Pryor is tentative and he tends to float or meander in deep coverage instead of get meaningful instructions from what he is observing on the field. Pryor plays in straight lines. He does not adjust well when the play asks him to move backwards or laterally or otherwise adjust on the fly.
This to me is the key to unlocking Pryor’s downside. Once you “get” this about his game, all of his flaws manifest themselves as iterations of this larger issue with his style of play. One excellent example of Pryor’s blinders limiting him is the way he can get blown up by blockers. He is so focused on the ball carrier that he doesn’t process blockers in his peripheral vision:
Manipulation - Pryor can be manipulated way too easily for a player who is a last line of defense. He gets caught peeking in the backfield. He bites on fakes. He predictably follows the receiver dispatched through his zone to get him out of position.
Lack of Anticipation/Awareness - In deep zone coverage, Pryor rarely anticipates throws. He does not read or diagnose plays as much as he waits for something to react to. You will see way too many completions given up in front of him to label Pryor as a player who is an effective centerfielder.
Overaggressiveness - Pryor’s closing speed is a double-edged sword. He overruns plays and can take himself out of a play because he is too eager. His reactions to targets changing direction in the open field range from mostly ineffective to non-existent. It isn’t a lack of physical ability, again, I believe it is his nature as a single-minded player with an accelerator, but little in the way of steering.
Lack of Discipline - This shows up in a lot of places on Pryor’s tape, but none more glaring than when he goes in for the tackle. Big hits are nice, but Pryor often leaves his feet, and just as often, he fails to wrap up. This leads to missed tackles and personal fouls. Again, as a last line of defense, this is very troubling flaw.
Almost every one of Pryor’s positives are counterbalanced by the way those qualities become negatives when he is asked to do more than seek and destroy, and sometimes even when he is asked to do that. He can be an aggressive blitzer, but simple moves will likely elude the pressure he creates. He can blow up screens, but he can also be rendered harmless by a patient receiver:
Pryor will create big plays and he will give up big plays. The answer to maximizing one and minimizing the other is carving out a role for him that puts him close to the line of scrimmage. Let him drop into short zone coverage, where he can feel free to bite on everything that enters his area without fear of it being misdirection away from his more important responsibilities. He can blow up receivers on short crossing routes and otherwise make players think twice about their safety on the short gimme routes that forces the defense to concede gains that put the offense in excellent down/distance situations. I wouldn’t want Pryor on an island against a good receiving tight end in man coverage. The athleticism is there, but it seems like he would be easy to separate from with any sort of effective break in a route. Pryor has also exhibited a tendency to get grabby in one-on-one situations downfield:
As a safety responsible for defending downfield passing plays, Pryor is going to be a liability. A good quarterback will have no trouble moving him out of the way with his eyes or a good pump fake. A good offensive coordinator will easily be able to identify plays that will encourage Pryor to take himself out of the danger zone by his following his own simplistic instincts.
The bottom line is that Pryor is only going to be a success with an Earl Thomas or Ed Reed type of safety, or perhaps a dominant front seven like San Francisco’s. They don’t have to be as singular as Reed or Thomas in that role, but it hems in a defense in terms of personnel choices. Does that sound like a first-round pick? Shouldn't first-round picks create more roster flexibility, not less?
In addition to Chancellor, names that should be coming into your head right now are Dashon Goldson, DJ Swearinger, and Bernard Pollard (As a side note, Pryor lacks Troy Polamalu and Bob Sanders instincts to sniff out plays before they happen, so the closing speed/hitting is where the comparison ends).This brings up another troubling point in Pryor’s profile. The NFL is moving in a direction to try to iron out the “headhunting” part of safety play that is essential to Pryor’s value. Pryor is going to rack up penalties, fines, and suspensions. Hopefully, like the others, he won’t allow that change his identity, but it is still something that needs to be mentioned. Should a team spend a first-round pick on a type of player that is becoming an endangered species in the NFL?
With the right fit, Pryor can flourish. New England, Cincinnati, Denver, San Diego, and Minnesota could all make him work, and there are others. He will not be a panacea for a team struggling with the safety position like Green Bay, or a good partner for Polamalu in Pittsburgh (they already have a smaller version of Pryor in 2013 fourth-round pick Shamarko Thomas). In the deepest draft class in recent memory, chances are that a team can do better with their first-round pick than Pryor.