HOUSTON — The Super Bowl has a way of making stars and validating careers, but Taylor Gabriel appears to be well on his way to both before Sunday’s kickoff.
The 5-foot-8 — and that might be generous — and 165-pound blur of a receiver already has beaten long odds by going from lightly recruited high school player to undersized and undrafted Abilene Christian standout to legitimate NFL player.
It was the job, back in 2014, of another undersized former receiver — then Cleveland Browns wide receiver coach Mike McDaniel, who is 5-9 and played the position at Yale — to sift through the dozens of undrafted wideouts, all the flotsam and jetsam that was passed over in seven rounds of the draft, to ID one or two players who fit offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s ideal of what they were looking for at the position.
McDaniel had followed Shanahan along various NFL stops, from the Houston Texans to Washington Redskins and then onto Cleveland, and knew what Shanahan wanted in a receiver. Two players stood above the leftovers in McDaniel’s that year: Gabriel and Willie Snead, from Ball State. The Browns signed both eventually.
“We had traded some picks and had a lot of question marks with Josh Gordon, so I spent a long time going through the undrafted [receivers],” McDaniel said. “I had combed through about 150 guys, and Taylor was the guy who was atop our list. Willie Snead, too. But we had to convince [Gabriel] not to sign with Oakland [Raiders] and come to Cleveland first.
“He had some unique skills but with a very limited route tree coming from college. But that was totally what we looked for, what Kyle taught me to look for. We liked him … and then we got him in the building, and it was like, ‘Whoa … this guy is awesome.'”
Shanahan saw what McDaniel saw and went to former Browns head coach Mike Pettine and GM Ray Farmer and reported that Gabriel was good enough to help the Browns immediately, even after only having seen him during the first rookie minicamp. They turned out to be very right, as Gabriel averaged 17.3 yards on 36 catches as a rookie, starting two games for the Browns. But after a new regime took over before this past season, Gabriel was not deemed a perfect fit in Hue Jackson’s offense.
Snead and Gabriel combined for 107 catches, 1,474 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns this season. And yeah, neither played for the Browns in 2016. Snead has become one of Drew Brees’ most trusted targets with the New Orleans Saints. Gabriel, waived by Cleveland in September, has added a key element to the Atlanta Falcons’ Super Bowl offense and his nickname, “Turbo,” pretty much explains it.
“It speaks for itself,” Gabriel said. “‘Turbo’ is just a button that you use every now and then.”
The eyes of McDaniel and Shanahan bulged when Gabriel came free, and they immediately pushed the front office to put in a claim. The Falcons had Julio Jones, their X-factor, chain mover Mohamed Sanu, two good pass-catching backs and a solid stable of tight ends that would eventually combined to catch five TD passes this season.
But they needed that extra little juice, just to put the Falcons’ offense over the top. They hit their own turbo button and put in a claim, and the Falcons were able to land Gabriel.
“When he became available, it was the speed that jumped out first,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said.
The Falcons have a player evaluation metric called the CT grade — “C” is for competitiveness, and “T” stands for toughness — that they use on every player they consider bringing in. Gabriel hit high marks on both of those, despite his small build, making him the perfect addition for what was missing and what they value most.
“We saw a guy that really liked to compete,” Quinn said. “He wasn’t just a featured player that would catch a screen. We saw him do the whole complement of things.”
That actually makes Gabriel a CTS player then … competitiveness, toughness and speed.
“I’m the fastest player on [the Falcons],” Gabriel bragged Wednesday with a coy smile. Falcons running back Tevin Coleman, seated a few feet away, was asked to verify this. “Oh, man, let’s line up right now,” Coleman said. “But yeah … he is fast.”
That speed took a while to manifest itself in Atlanta while Gabriel got acclimated with quarterback Matt Ryan and recovered from an early-season hamstring injury. Once he entered the lineup, the fireworks show hit a new plateau. He caught a 47-yard touchdown in a 33-32 win over the Green Bay Packers in his first big Falcons splash play and backed it up with seven touchdowns in his next six games. Although Gabriel suffered a shoulder injury that slowed him in December, he has been back to turbo mode since.
Gabriel is less fueled by what could be seen as a slight — the worst team in the NFL this season having no use for him — and more by the memory of his late mother. She died a little more than a decade ago, suffering a brain aneurysm when Gabriel was 15 in high school in Mesquite, Texas. He still keeps the last two things she gave him with him at all times: a $2 bill for good luck and her Bible. They’ll be with him, on his person and in spirit, when he’s trying to take one deep against the New England Patriots on Super Bowl Sunday.
“She was a big part of me coming back and playing football,” Gabriel said. “I quit football for a month or so [after she died] and I didn’t want to do it. I feel like football is the only way for me to really feel that presence of my mom when I’m out there on the field. I feel like that is why I go so hard to stay in the NFL and to be in this limelight, so I could be closer to my mom when I’m out there.”
After the game, he’ll be a free agent and will attract a lot of suitors. Shanahan is likely to take the San Francisco 49ers’ job, and that’s a team that will be flush with salary-cap space. McDaniel could join Shanahan’s staff, given their history. Gabriel might be a natural fit for a team that badly needs offensive weaponry.
But Gabriel isn’t thinking about that now, he said.
“My focus right now is the Super Bowl and what we have [to do] to win this game,” he said. “When that time comes to look at [free agency], I’ll look at. But this time right now, my focus is on the Super Bowl.”
And the Patriots need to focus on Gabriel, too. Stopping Julio Jones and the run game might be higher on the priority list, but they can’t forget about the Falcons’ X-factor — the one that has been forgotten about once or twice before. By FBS schools, by receiver-needy NFL teams and by Falcons opponents this season.
“I just love proving people wrong,” Gabriel said.
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