FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — On Wednesday just before practice, Falcons safety Ricardo Allen looked across the locker room, over the ping-pong table, and shouted out to Taylor Gabriel, who was standing at his locker. Wearing a gray “Turbo Taylor” t-shirt—bearing Gabriel’s likeness—with the sleeves cut off, Allen flexed for Gabriel before putting on his practice jersey.
Shortly after, Julio Jones emerged from the shower as Gabriel walked by. The diminutive third-year receiver has given out nearly 200 “Turbo Taylor” t-shirts, but Jones doesn’t have one.
“He don’t got my size,” Jones laughed. “I need an XL.”
A shirt will eventually make its way to Jones from Gabriel, who’s spent this season making sure his brand of football is known to both fans and teammates. The Falcons will face Seattle this weekend in the NFC divisional round, and the speedy Gabriel has become Atlanta’s No. 3 receiver and (likely) the fastest offensive player in the same year that the Cleveland Browns decided to release him.
It’d be easy for Gabriel to say “look at me now” to the Browns, but he refrains. He calls Cleveland a “great organization” and that he’s “grateful for the opportunities” there. After all, the Browns did sign him out of their rookie minicamp in 2014 once he went undrafted out of Abilene Christian. Gabriel had 36 catches for 621 yards in 2014 and was one of the top undrafted rookies in the NFL that season.
The Browns liked him enough to make him one of nine players that unveiled the franchise’s new uniforms in the spring of 2015. But then he was essentially forgotten about in his sophomore season. His catches and targets went down and he only had 241 receiving yards in 2015 with no touchdowns.
An organization mired in dysfunction for decades, Cleveland used four draft choices on receivers in 2016. The Browns decided to go with the first-year players over the cheap speedster entering his third year and cut Gabriel in early September.
“It was surprising. It was heartbreaking,” Gabriel said. “Just being there in that organization and being there as a rookie and having them give me that opportunity, you want to be there. You want to bring a playoff and a great season to the Browns.”
Second-year Falcons coach Dan Quinn met with general manager Thomas Dimitroff and scouts about how they could use a guy like Gabriel in their offense before claiming him off waivers. It’s no coincidence either that Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan had the same post in Cleveland during Gabriel’s breakout rookie season.
Shanahan quickly integrated Gabriel into Atlanta’s offensive scheme, which has involved mobilizing Ryan more and giving opposing defenses healthy doses of running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Both Shanahan and Quinn made clear Gabriel, who has played a third of all Falcons’ offensive snaps, isn’t just a gadget player.
“We try to use him in a variety of ways. We’ve handed it off to him on sweeps, we’ve hit him on screens, we’ve hit him on deep balls. He’s not a utility player for us; he’s an every-down receiver,” Quinn said of the 5' 8", 175-pound receiver. “Downfield, in-breaking routes, deep balls, screens. It’s not where he comes in there for specialty plays. For him to come in and learn and have the understanding in a very short time speaks a lot to him.”
Gabriel had an inauspicious start to the season, racking up seven catches for 101 yards through his first four games, and getting knocked out of his fifth game against the Seahawks when he absorbed an Earl Thomas hit in the first quarter. However, for Saturday’s matchup, Thomas is out with a broken leg suffered in Week 13, while Gabriel is a potential X-factor.
As opponents began to focus more on Julio Jones after his 300-yard performance against Carolina in October, Gabriel began seeing less coverage. He’s had at least 40 receiving yards in seven of his past eight games.
“When I first started playing, the coverages they were bringing Julio were crazy. I just took advantage of it,” Gabriel said. “The Green Bay game (three catches, 68 yards and a touchdown) the safety was scooted way off the hash to Julio’s side so it was a primary matchup for me to beat man-on-man coverage. And that’s what I’m good at doing. Julio has opened up a lot for me. Philadelphia game (a 76-yard touchdown catch), too. A lot of the games, when they feel like double-teaming Julio, it brings a one-on-one matchup for me and I’m great at beating man. He’s helping me out a lot.”
This season Gabriel has caught 35 passes for 579 yards and a career-high six touchdowns (plus one rushing score). Meanwhile, the four rookie receivers the Browns kept over Gabriel combined this season for 58 catches for 698 yards and three touchdowns. Advantage: Falcons and Gabriel.
Gabriel, who ran a wind-aided 4.28-second 40 at his pro day, adopted his “Turbo” nickname after the Falcons’ crowdsourced ideas in late November for the small, shifty receiver. He signs most of his tweets #TurboTaylor and had the moniker printed on t-shirts that are sold in his online store and given to any teammate or coach who wants one.
“Yes, he gave me one,” Shanahan said. “I actually gave it to my wife. It was more like a belly shirt on me.”