Every NFL season, there are breakout players, often initially buried on a given team's depth chart, who suddenly become indispensable.
For the Atlanta Falcons, that player has been receiver Taylor Gabriel.
Gabriel is the perfect receiver for the Falcons offense, which makes sense, since his NFL debut in 2014 with the Cleveland Browns coincided with Kyle Shanahan's tenure as an offensive coordinator in Cleveland. Clearly the coach saw something in the receiver, enough to convince the Falcons to pick Gabriel up off of waivers in early September, just prior to the start of the 2016 season.
Still, Gabriel's success has never ben a given. Though he was a standout at Abilene Christian in college, with a school record of 27 touchdowns and 215 catches, he was not on the NFL Draft radar. After he acquired by the Browns as an undrafted free agent in 2014, Gabriel had only two starts. His 17.3 yards-per-reception stat as a rookie was impressive, but he scored just a single touchdown and caught only 50 percent of his 72 passing targets, for 621 yards.
Things did not improve for Gabriel in his second season with the Browns, through little fault of his own. His sophomore training camp was a strong one, earning him praise from coaches and teammates who predicted a breakout. But turmoil at the quarterback position, among other drama -- including Shanhan's resignation via a 32-point presentation -- held Gabriel to only 28 catches on 48 targets for 241 yards and no scores, with a yards-per-reception average of just 8.6.
The next regime change, from head coach Mike Pettine and company to Hue Jackson's crew, further sealed Gabriel's fate. Among the Browns' 14 draft picks were receivers Corey Coleman, Ricardo Louis, Jordan Peyton, Rashard Higgins and tight end Seth DeValve, who also accompanied veteran Andrew Hawkins. Gabriel was the odd man out.
The Falcons took on Gabriel's services, but even then it was no guarantee that he would ultimately play such a critical role. Per Pro Football Focus, Gabriel played no snaps in Week 1 of the 2016 season and just nine in Week 2; he had 36 in Week 3 with starter Julio Jones nursing a calf injury, but it wasn't until after the Falcons' Week 7 bye that he became a part of the regular offensive rotation.
Gabriel's skill set of being a deep target and an after-the-catch threat fits right into the Shanahan offense of prioritizing the deep ball, since Matt Ryan can be reliably accurate in such situations. Ryan's yards-per-pass-attempt average this year is a league-leading 9.3 yards (and 10.1 yards, adjusted) and his yards per completion are 13.3. Gabriel's yards per reception average has thus rebounded to 16.5.
Most importantly, Gabriel can score touchdowns: six in the regular season (tying Jones for the receiving scoring lead for the Falcons). And owing to having quality and stability at quarterback, Gabriel's catch percentage rose to 70 percent in the regular season and 67 percent in the team's two postseason games.
Gabriel's presence is especially useful against the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. The goal for the Pats, on defense, is to completely eliminate their opponents' top offensive threats. For the Falcons, that means Jones. But with Gabriel just as capable of making game-changing plays (in concert with a top-five run game and receiver Mohamed Sanu), New England will be spread thin. The possibility for Gabriel to be a factor behind an Atlanta victory is a very real one.
What was hinted at in Cleveland for Gabriel has become a reality in Atlanta, with credit due not only to his talents as a football player but also the quality of his quarterback and the belief of his coordinator. Though he may have seemed to come out of nowhere, Gabriel earned his opportunity and has continued to make the most of it. Now, Gabriel could be on the path to even greater glory.