While I have not made the deep dive into the early September waiver-wire personnel maneuverings of all 32 NFL teams – my research staff is on sabbatical – I’m going to go ahead and declare Taylor Gabriel the best last-cut pick-up of 2016.
I know, daring stuff there.
Anyone who cares to argue the point would be well-served watching the replay of Gabriel’s two touchdowns against Arizona on Sunday, in which he transformed the modest screen pass into semi-jaw-dropping displays of unnatural speed in an unnaturally speedy game. Those were touchdowns Nos. 4 and 5 for him in the past four weeks.
And, besides, his story is one that appeals beyond numbers: That of the undersized (5-foot-8, 165 pounds), undervalued receiver, discarded by the league’s worst team only to find an important role with the league’s highest-scoring offense. A more complete look at the origin story of the player some are calling Turbo Taylor is to found in Sunday’s AJC and on myajc.com.
One facet of the story is how quickly he acclimated to the Falcons offense. After all, he wasn’t plugged in until one week before the season opener against Tampa Bay. But then, quickness is his trademark.
It certainly helped that the Falcons’ offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, was in charge of the Cleveland offense in 2014 when Gabriel caught on there as an undrafted free agent. The familiarity was a big plus. Added to that, the Falcons as an organization did a good job assimilating someone who was on his heels emotionally after being among the final cuts in Cleveland. After all, if the Browns don’t think you’re good enough to play for them, what’s the next step? Co-ed flag football?
Fortunately, and not surprisingly, it was the Browns’ judgment that was flawed, not Gabriel. And being released by them turned out to be a stroke of fortune of lottery-winning proportion.
“That night (Sept. 4) the Falcons did a really good job of making him feel wanted and welcome and that he had a role,” said Gabriel’s Dallas-based agent, Scott Casterline. “I credit them for that. In that situation you need a sense of confidence and a sense that I belong on this team. And (the Falcons) provided that immediately.”
“Sometimes in the NFL it’s a matter of right place, right organization, right coaches and scheme,” Casterline said.
There didn’t seem to be a lot of doubts that Gabriel would be a contributor, although who could say it was going to be to this extent?
“(You saw it) the first day. He came in for a Monday practice, you could tell he could run. He could run routes. He was probably further ahead than most people realized after playing in the system with Kyle in Cleveland for a year,” quarterback Matt Ryan said.
“He knew some of the things that we were doing. There were a few changes that took a while, but I think everybody could tell from Day 1 he was going to be a guy who can help us in some way because he has such great speed and quickness, and that’s something we can use,” Ryan said.
It was the speed that Gabriel flashed in Cleveland, and before that at his Pro Day at D-II Abilene Christian (4.27 40), that prompted the Falcons to scoop him up after the final cuts were made.
While Gabriel was among Shanahan’s favorites during that year they shared in Cleveland, the coordinator said he did not have to wage any kind of campaign to get the Falcons’ brass to move quickly on the receiver.
“I didn’t have to sell anything,” Shanahan said. “(The personnel people) loved what they saw on tape, too. We were all on the same page, and I was pumped they felt that way. It was a pretty easy decision for us.”
How so? What did Gabriel possess that the Falcons had to have?
“First of all speed – that’s something we struggled with a little bit last year. The more speed you can get out there the better,” Shanahan said.
And then followed a bonus coaching seminar from Shanahan:
“The speed element doesn’t always show up in catches. But when you got guys who can blow the top off, it opens up the field, it gives more space for other people to do their job. And when you get that space, other people can make plays. And when (opponents) don’t respect that speed, then that guy gets touchdowns.
“It really makes things easier, clears stuff up for the quarterback. You’re always trying to get speed out there, but the problem is a lot of speed guys can’t do other stuff. So, when you have a guy who can run, but can also catch the ball and who’s not scared to block, then he can stay out there more. And that’s what Taylor allows you to do.”
As Gabriel looks to extend his touchdown-scoring streak, here’s one other tidbit going into Sunday’s Kansas City game: His best friend, his partner in speed, an Abilene Christian teammate who also showed well during the school’s pro day, will be in the Georgia Dome.
That’s Chiefs running back Charcandrick West, another fellow who came up the hard way as an undrafted free agent.
There seems no question about which of the friends is fastest, at least in one corner of the Falcons’ locker room. “Me, me, me,” Gabriel said.
A point he would like to emphasize once more Sunday.