Ryan Pace took a bit of a gamble when he guaranteed $14 million to Taylor Gabriel, a guy who never had more than 36 receptions or 625 yards in a season, last March. It was a bet on the 27-year-old being not only an ideal fit for Matt Nagy’s offense, but being able to handle a significantly larger workload than he did with the Cleveland Browns or Atlanta Falcons.
Four games doesn’t mean Pace’s gamble has paid off, but what the 5-foot-8 Gabriel has done to begin his Bears career has been nothing but promising.
Gabriel has quickly proven to be one of Mitch Trubisky’s favorite targets, if not the quarterback’s favorite, with 22 receptions on 29 targets. While one-fourth of the season isn’t enough to predict what Gabriel’s production could look like at the end of the year, it is worth noting that he’s on pace to breezily eclipse his career highs in targets, receptions and yards.
“He’s a speedy receiver and I think the neat thing about Taylor is he wants to get away from that whole gadgety deal or label that is with him,” Nagy said. “He’s done a great job at really embracing who we are as an offense and then filling his role as that other receiver.”
While with the Falcons, Gabriel was solidly a third receiver and a “gadget” guy, as Nagy said. He played 53 percent of Atlanta’s offensive snaps in 2017 and 41 percent in 2016, and prior to that played 45 and 58 percent of the Browns’ snaps in 2015 and 2014, respectively.
So perhaps the most impressive part of Gabriel’s strong start to 2018 is how much the Bears are able to use him. Gabriel has played 83 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps, the same percentage as Trey Burton and behind only Allen Robinson (93 percent) among skill players.
His usage is more impressive, too, given Gabriel missed a good chunk of training camp with a foot injury. But even then, the work Gabriel put in during July and August was enough to convince his coaches he was ready for a larger role than he’s ever had.
“You project it by making sure that he gets those reps in practice because I think the biggest thing is with your legs getting used to that,” Nagy said. “If you’re not on the field as much then your production can go down because you’re not strong. Your legs get tired and that. He’s conditioned and he’s done a great job of that.
“Then, mentally can he handle all the stuff we’re asking him to do? He’s done that too. So, that’s great, that’s a benefit for us and I think for where we’re at right now with the depth that we have at wide receiver it just enables guys like Taylor and these other guys that are behind Allen Robinson a chance to really go out there and do their thing.”
That Gabriel is able to be on the field so much allows the Bears to use him in a number of different ways. He can be brought in jet motion across the line of scrimmage to create confusion or a mismatch (and, when he does take a handoff, he’s carried four times for 27 yards). Trubisky can pick him out for quick screen throws on the perimeter. He can stretch a defense downfield with his speed. And he’s still effective on those gadget plays — he was the one who scored a touchdown on “Willy Wonka,” after all.
“No. 1, he can roll,” offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said. “Everyone in this league knows that he can really run. That, in itself, matters. Wherever he is on the field they have to maybe open their hips a little earlier or align a little bit differently, and you can do a lot of that with him and other guys underneath that. But he’s a guy, yeah, that we’re excited about. A guy that has never been ‘the guy’ on his team, but we just need to keep building his packages.”
Wide receivers coach Mike Furrey said earlier this month that Gabriel’s breakout game against Tampa Bay — he caught all seven targets for 104 yards with two touchdowns — was the culmination of him gaining an even better grasp of what the team expects his role to be.
“He’s been trying to figure out how to do this thing the right way coming into a system here where you’re expected to practice hard, expected to do things right, and try to get better every day,” Furrey said. “He’s been doing that over the past couple weeks and he’s starting to buy in to what we’re trying to do. He was rewarded with that yesterday, so it was good to see that because it’s something he’s been working on, he’s been wanting to get better, he’s been wanting to be a reliable target for Mitch and he wants Mitch to trust him and he’s been working on that the past couple weeks so it’s good to see that happen.”