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The case for and against the Falcons bringing back Taylor Gabriel

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The speedy receiver is coming off a down year that clouds his status somewhat.

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

When the Falcons plucked Taylor Gabriel off the scrap heap, they were widely seen to be taking a flier on an intriguing player with some ties to Kyle Shanahan. Nobody could have expected that Turbo would turn out to be one of the team’s most dangerous playmakers, but that is exactly what he was in 2016, when he grabbed 35 passes for 579 yards and five touchdowns. He had shown some promise in Cleveland during his rookie season, sure, but Gabriel was a huge, pleasant surprise for Atlanta.

With time under his belt, Gabriel figured to have an even better year in 2017. I cautioned that he wasn’t necessarily going to be a huge fantasy pickup, but a 16 game season in Atlanta and a supposedly continuity-minded offensive coordinator should have translated into at least 35 receptions and some big plays again. Instead, with Gabriel missing some summer workouts and Steve Sarkisian struggling at the helm of the offense, Turbo turned in a pretty pedestrian year.

His 33 catches for 378 yards and one touchdown meant he saw decreased production across the board with three more games than he had on the field in 2016. You can point fingers wherever you like for that—I blame Sark more than anyone—but it became apparent that Gabriel was not a featured part of the gameplan. As a result, Gabriel’s production was much closer to the days of Harry Douglas past than it was his tremendous 2016 season.

That complicates the picture for the unrestricted free agent. Will the Falcons choose to bring Gabriel back, or will he find a better offer elsewhere?

For

It’s all obvious. Gabriel is reasonably sure-handed, is unreasonably quick, and has the ability to punish teams deep and make defenders miss with just a little room to work. As we saw under Sarkisian even more than Shanahan, Turbo has the ability to carry the ball and pick up chunk yardage if he’s utilized properly. He’s a terrific route runner at times, and a solid one at all times. He does everything we used to complain that the team’s third receivers didn’t do.

It’s the speed and the underrated route running that stand out so often, and it makes you frustrated that Gabriel both wasn’t open and wasn’t targeted more often this season. Gabriel can absolutely thrive with the ball in his hands and some space to work, and he is not purely a gadget player.

All of that is to say that he’s a perfectly legitimate #3 receiver, and there are multiple teams around the NFL who will view him as such. You can’t teach speed, and Gabriel has it in spades. Couple that with his ability to function as a quasi-fourth running back in a pinch and you have a player who makes a ton of sense on a Falcons offense that is firing on all cylinders, given how versatile that offense can be. Especially when teams can’t pay much attention to him, Gabriel can make them pay, and I’d much rather have a home run threat as the team’s third receiver than a plodding chain mover.

Against

We knew that Shanahan did a lot of work to ensure that his receivers had favorable matchups and Matt Ryan got open looks, and perhaps no player benefited from that more than Gabriel. Without that focus—and with way too many attempts at half-assed screen passes and the occasional jet sweep—Gabriel found himself in one-on-one combat against quality cornerbacks pretty often. He did not always win those, but then, you wouldn’t always expect him to.

Gabriel’s speed is valuable and his shiftiness both helps him in the open field and can help him get open, but teams have discovered that press coverage and plenty of early contact close to the line of scrimmage can keep Gabriel from swiftly and lethally getting into open space. He’s a player who generally needs that space to work, or at least a gameplan and offensive line designed to get him the ball once he fights his way open. Gabriel’s speed makes him a potentially dangerous deep threat, but he was rarely one in 2017. He had one or two ugly drops this year, as well, but so did several other Falcons receivers.

He’s also not a top-shelf blocker, which is neither surprising nor particularly damaging for his case here, given that the Falcons aren’t leaning heavily on him to do so.

The case against Gabriel as a player really isn’t that robust, in other words. We know he has limitations, but we also know he’s perfectly capable of being the #3 receiver he looked like in 2016. The problem is that he’s going to command decent dollars, and Sark showed no real aptitude for maximizing his strengths in 2017. Maybe that changes with a full offseason, but to me, the Falcons need to very seriously figure out how they’re going to Gabriel before they bring him back on a multi-year deal.

The Verdict: No

This isn’t the strongest no in this series, but I’ve been leaning toward it since late in the 2017 season. Gabriel has value, seems like a great fit with the team’s culture and locker room, and I don’t doubt the Falcons would like to have him back. The question is whether they’re willing and able to take concrete steps to ensure that Gabriel goes back from the useful and sporadically electric receiver he was in 2017 to the playmaker we saw in 2016. If you’re looking for a deep threat with more size to add to the receiving corps—and the Falcons may be, given their weaknesses last year—then Turbo is not the guy you’ll be breaking the bank for.

Given Gabriel’s skill set and the fact that teams like the receiver-starved Browns and 49ers (with Shanny) have cap space, it would not be shocking to see him land a bigger deal elsewhere while Atlanta goes shopping for a new #3 in the draft. I’d welcome him back if the Falcons re-sign him, but I’m not convinced Gabriel’s returning unless Sarkisian is aware of just how much his own shortcomings as an offensive coordinator cost the young receiver this year.