Very Deep Sleeper: Taylor Gabriel (Fantasy Football)
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I planned to do a “Very Deep Sleeper” report on Taylor Gabriel sometime in June, but I had to speed up the scheduling to early June as Gabriel has recently garnered a little chatter, the subject of some national notes from the Bears’ OTAs this past week. It’s your typical fantasy fare in the dead part of the offseason football news cycle…another one of those ‘this guy could be good’/’we see some nice things from this guy‘ type blurbs. They’re exciting for the day, but soon to be forgotten.
The latest news has not moved the Taylor Gabriel fantasy needle as of yet – as he is still, currently, the #97 ranked wide receiver in PPR for fantasy 2018 among the FantasyPros consensus of expert rankings. He qualifies as a very deep sleeper at this point. Dismissing Taylor Gabriel in 2018 is easy.
He’s bounced around to three teams in the past four years and has never been seen or discussed as much of a wide receiver talent. With that, you might think this article is going to be a play on Gabriel putting up some decent numbers as a likely starter on an offense showing promise — a new breath of fresh air with the new coaching staff coming in.
That’s an obvious play, but not much of a reason to get really excited. I think ‘really excited’ is on the table here. The case I would like to make is that Taylor Gabriel may secretly be one of the better, more dangerous wide receiver talents in the NFL…and with that, he may have landed in a perfect situation to unlock his potential.
For you to buy his potential being unlocked in 2018, I first have to convince you of his existing talent. To do that, let’s take a walk back through Gabriel’s hard-fought, continually road blocked journey in the NFL the past five years. The story has a well-deserved happy ending.
In 2014, Taylor Gabriel was a too small (5’7″/167), small school WR prospect out of Abilene Christian. The successful college player showed NFL athleticism at his pro day, running a 4.40 40-time with a sweet 2.47 20-yard/1.50 10-yard dash, a nice 6.84 three-cone, and a high-end 40-inch vertical along with a very impressive-for-his-size 17 bench press reps. Being an outstanding college player outside of a D1 program, and having high-end NFL speed and athleticism usually prevents you from getting drafted in the NFL, sadly. As such, he entered the league as an undrafted free agent rookie in 2014.
The Cleveland Browns gave him a shot in training camp, and he played so well that he forced his way onto the Opening Day 53-man roster in 2014. He was impressive enough, in fact, that he played a decent amount of snaps in Week 1, and even more in Week 2. In Week 3, he had a 70-yard deep ball catch that got everyone’s attention.
The little speedster was constantly getting himself open and making plays when given the opportunity. In Week 4, he took another step forward – a four-catch, 95-yard game on six targets as he started to establish himself as one the main options among the Cleveland Browns’ WR group. Through his first 10 games, the undrafted, unheralded, un-paid-attention-to rookie WR was averaging 2.9 catches and 53.7 yards per game. Not bad at all. Everything seemed great to that point, but then the story took a strange, very unfair turn.
Through 10 games, the Cleveland Browns were sitting at 6-4 in 2014, and challenging for a division title, if you can believe it. But then the Browns, Browns’d it all up. Johnny Manziel started forcing himself into the picture against the head coach’s wishes thanks to the owner’s wishes, and as soon as that happened, all the Browns wide receivers’ numbers started to crumble. Gabriel average 1.1 catches and 16 yards per game the final six games of the season, ending on a whimper. Still, it was a pretty impressive showing for a UDFA rookie.
In 2015, Taylor Gabriel got Manziel’d again. When Gabriel worked with Josh McCown, he was back to putting up WR3 production, but when Johnny Manziel was forced into the lineup, Gabriel, among others, fell off the face of the earth. The amount of careers that Johnny Manziel ruined, unfairly, in the NFL is sad and pathetic.
A new coaching staff and personnel group came in for the 2016 season and being the geniuses that they are/were (they of the 1-31 record the last two years) cut Taylor Gabriel in the preseason. A wide receiver showing such promise, doing it the right way, etc., just got tossed to the curb for a plethora of “Moneyball” drafted rookie wide receivers almost all of whom have made no impact in the NFL to date.
Gabriel was suddenly looking for work, and his rookie season offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, was now the O.C. for the Atlanta Falcons. Kyle Shanahan made a pitch to the Falcons’ brass to give Gabriel a look. The Falcons signed Gabriel to a low-end deal and brought him into Training Camp.
Gabriel played so well, he forced his way onto the 53-man roster; despite the Falcons having a pretty good level of WR talent in-house already. He made the team, but barely played at first. Gabriel was a bit player for the first six weeks of the season, and then after a Week 7 bye, he would go on a 10-game tear where he would push WR 1-2 numbers and actually go on to lead all Falcons’ WRs, including Julio Jones, in TDs (seven) for the 2016 season, despite barely playing the first six weeks.
Gabriel was a breakout star for the Falcons out of nowhere. He was catching passes all over the field and also getting an opportunity to run the ball, racking up 12.8 yards per carry on four carries in 2016 and rushing for a TD. Surely, now Gabriel would start to break out and become an important part of the Falcons offense going forward. Nope.
Kyle Shanahan left to coach the 49ers and in came new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to send the Falcons high production 2016 offense into a mild disaster in 2017 (falling from #1 to #15 in points scored). Part of Sarkisian’s “brilliant plan” involved diminishing Gabriel’s role in the offense. Once again, Gabriel was getting jobbed by awful coaching decisions.
The Cleveland Browns and the Atlanta Falcons may not have fully realized that potential talent they had with Taylor Gabriel, but fortunately for Gabriel — Chicago Bears GM Ryan Pace was paying attention. The Bears signed Gabriel to a four-year/$26M deal this offseason – the fourth highest deal for a wide receiver in this year’s free agency period. It was even a better deal than Michael Crabtree and Jordy Nelson secured.
For all of Gabriel’s career, he’s been ignored and dismissed and constantly trying to prove himself and never earning the respect he was due. That is until the Chicago Bears put their money where their mouth is. They didn’t put a big investment in Taylor Gabriel for him to touch the ball a couple times a game and play special teams — they brought him in to be what he’s proven he could be when given a chance — a legit starting NFL wide receiver.
The fantasy opportunity here is beyond the Bears showing him respect. It’s why they showed him respect. He’s not just a nice, stable hand to have on the depth chart; he’s a playmaker, a weapon.
Gabriel can make all the plays. He can beat you deep with his speed and nice deep ball catching concentration/hands, but he can also work over the middle in traffic because he’s gritty/tough. He’ll also take a little bubble screen to the house in an instant, as well as snagging a jet sweep and slicing through the defense for a long run. He can do it all…he’s showed flashes of it for four years when given the chance.
Gabriel’s a little like that one guy on the team that his new head coach was the coordinator for the past two seasons. What’s that guy’s name? Oh yeah…Tyreek Hill. Gabriel has a little poor man’s Tyreek Hill in him, and just got signed to a major contract to work with the coach who has a playbook design with Hill’s recent success in mind.
Taylor Gabriel is not going to give you Tyreek-like fantasy numbers in 2018, because no one is like Tyreek Hill…but Gabriel is in that same area code. He’s likely to be used similarly. If Taylor Gabriel has a somewhat like Tyreek Hill role in the Chicago Bears offense, which Matt Nagy is already hinting at, then what’s that worth for fantasy football 2018?
I would submit it’s worth a lot more than the #97 ranked WR spot that he sits at right now on FantasyPros. None of us have seen the new Bears offense, but given the surrounding circumstances (young stud QB, new offensive-minded coaching staff) and Gabriel’s under the radar talent, it’s not crazy to project possible WR2 upside with a WR3 floor. That’s a great value from where he’s trading at today.
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