Twelve months ago, Taylor Gabriel was relatively unknown.
Although a record-setting receiver in college, playing for Abilene Christian University, it didn't push the diminutive receiver onto the national stage. Gabriel played three years at that level, accumulating 3,027 yards and 27 touchdowns on 215 receptions. He had the most touchdowns for a receiver in school history.
Gabriel couldn't turn his college performances into an NFL draft selection. He went undrafted and was left to beat the odds and find a roster spot in training camp.
Fortunately for Gabriel, there was one team with major needs at his position. The Cleveland Browns were expecting big things from Josh Gordon until they became aware of his suspension just before the draft. Despite losing Gordon, the Browns didn't draft a wide receiver, and Andrew Hawkins was their biggest free-agent addition.
This meant that the depth chart was already lacking in obvious selections entering training camp. Gabriel got a better shot to make an NFL roster than most undrafted rookies could ever expect.
He took advantage of it too.
Playing in all 16 regular-season games, the then-23-year-old receiver caught 36 passes for 621 yards and one touchdown. Modest numbers for most NFL receivers, but it was a significant step for an undrafted receiver attempting to establish himself at this level.
Gabriel didn't just establish himself, though. Instead he played so well for the Browns that the franchise, those who cover the franchise and some national analysts began to consider him as a potential breakout player in 2015:
The anonymity of last offseason has been replaced by excitement. Now only one question remains: Is that excitement justified?
Based on what Gabriel did as a rookie, there doesn't appear to be many reasons to think he can be anything more than a slot receiver. He's a competent complementary player relying on his speed and quickness to be effective working in more space infield.
What stands out most with Gabriel, and what was likely biggest reason he wasn't drafted, is his size. He is 5'8" and 167 pounds. Size can be overstated when it comes to the wide receiver position, but it does have an effect on the player when considered along with the rest of his skill set.
For Gabriel, his size is something that must be overcome with greater athleticism, ball skills and consistency. Even smaller outside receivers such as Antonio Brown (5'10", 186 lbs), Kendall Wright (5'10", 191 lbs) and Julian Edelman (5'10", 200 lbs) are significantly bigger than Gabriel is.
Therefore, Gabriel has very little margin for error in terms of his consistency and his skill set.
The first major issue with Gabriel emanating from last season is his frailty at the catch point. Despite catching only 36 passes, he failed to reel in eight more passes that should have been completed. He wasn't just failing to make plays because of his size also; he had too many straight drops also.
Gabriel failed at the catch point when trying to control the ball going to the ground, trying to absorb contact, trying to adjust to pull the ball in away from his body, tracking the ball incorrectly and experiencing one focus drop on a screen play when he failed to put his hands in the right positions.
Failing at the catch point isn't a major issue if you're consistently creating separation or making spectacular catches.
Although Gabriel had a number of big plays last year, he owes much of his success to scheme and some timely blown coverages from his opponents. At his size as an outside receiver, you need to be strong, quick and balanced to beat press coverage consistently.
For all of his targets last season, Gabriel only faced a jam attempt from a defensive back on two occasions: once he failed to make a reception away from his body and once he adjusted well to a six-yard pass on an in route.
Essentially all of his yardage came against off coverage when he was given free release into the secondary.
This play is a prime example of how Kyle Shanahan's play designs put Gabriel in space without asking him to do anything difficult. Gabriel is lined up to the outside, but he isn't facing press coverage. Jason McCourty is the cornerback across from him; he is more than five yards away from the receiver.
Even though it's 1st-and-10 in the red zone, the Browns are spreading the field to attack the secondary with four receivers. It's no coincidence that three receivers are to Gabriel's side of the field.
Brian Hoyer is the quarterback on this play. He understands that he is going to throw the ball to Gabriel as soon as he recognizes that the defense is playing man coverage. That is because the route combinations have created a wall of teammates between Gabriel and McCourty.
If the defense had played zone coverage, Hoyer would likely have looked elsewhere with the ball.
Because McCourty can't get through the receivers running in front of him before Hoyer releases the ball, Gabriel has a comfortable catch underneath in space. From there he can turn downfield for a simple six-yard reception.
Sharp horizontal routes such as in routes, out routes and crossing routes, especially after play action, were prominently featured in Gabriels' production in 2014.
On that occasion against the Tennessee Titans, the defense put itself in off coverage when the Browns spread the field. However, Shanahan also forced the defense to drop off Gabriel regularly by bunching him with receivers, stacking him behind receivers and lining him up yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Shanahan even lined Gabriel up as a running back in the backfield to run routes for two of his receptions.
These situations helped to create simple receptions in space for Gabriel. A large number of those types of plays were screen passes. Lining up wide left, wide right, in the slot and at running back, Gabriel caught screen passes from every possible position. He caught 13 in total for 125 yards.
Not many, if any, NFL coordinators design screens as well as Shanahan.
Once again, the Browns are deep in opponent territory on this play. The defense is in off coverage across the board, which is crucial for this screen's design. Gabriel is lined up to the top of the screen. He is not in a bunch with Jordan Cameron, but it's important to note that it is the tight end nearest to him.
How Cameron and Gabriel interact when the ball is snapped is going to be an important aspect of this play.
Hoyer extends the ball away from his body to sell the play fake. This action draws the attention of every single Indianapolis Colts defender. While eyes are averted elsewhere, Cameron and Gabriel are crossing their routes sharply.
Cameron is targeting the outside defensive back, while Gabriel is working toward the space behind the right outside linebacker.
Because the play fake worked so well, Gabriel is able to catch the ball in plenty of space underneath with three blockers in front of him. He only needs to follow his blocking to make it to the first-down marker because of the design of Shanahan's play.
Gabriel is a smart ball-carrier on these types of plays. He follows his blocks and slips one defender through for an extra two yards on this particular play.
When the Browns put the ball in Gabriel's hands in space underneath, he showed off a decisiveness and burst that allowed him to cut past defenders in space. His vision was impressive, even though his bulk prevented him from breaking tackles regularly.
One of Gabriel's biggest plays of the season came on a screen pass against the Oakland Raiders.
Gabriel catches the ball from the slot behind the line of scrimmage. The Raiders' pass rush was aggressive, so immediately there are blockers coming across the play in space for Gabriel. The receiver stumbles initially, but he still sets up his first block by pushing outside before cutting back infield.
This was an important action because it allowed Gabriel to stay close to his offensive linemen coming across the field. A running lane down the seam of the defense immediately revealed itself.
Once on the second level, Gabriel had to make another decisive move with an engaged blocker in front of him. He was quick to shift gears and accelerate around that obstacle, freeing him to sprint unopposed down the seam.
Although Gabriel is a fast player, he wasn't able to pull away from the defenders around him. He was still able to extend the play far enough for a 48-yard gain.
Gabriel's speed was on show for a number of big plays down the field. He had receptions of 70, 49, 21, 24, 48, 20, 23, 35, 49 and 34 yards for the season as a whole. A number of those plays showed off Gabriels' ability to run precise routes against zone and off-man coverage, but his production was bloated by scheme.
Shanahan's commitment to the run and reliance on heavy play fakes put deep safeties in tough situations. As such, Gabriel was too often able to simply just run to space rather than create his own separation.
That is what happened for Gabriel's longest reception of the season.
The Ravens show Cover 3 before the snap and are in that coverage once the play begins. The single-high safety's eyes are drawn toward the backfield as he is drawn forward at the snap. Meanwhile, Gabriel is advancing down the seam from a wide right position.
In the backfield, Hoyer fakes the handoff to the running back before turning to run into the flat to Gabriel's side. This is an important detail.
One of the staples of Shanahan's passing game is to hit the crossing route that runs parallel with the quarterback on bootleg play-action plays. Because of how much success the Browns had with this play, including on plays to Gabriel, the Ravens' defensive backs are more aware of it.
It's very difficult for the deep safety to close on the deep crossing route, so the left-side cornerback cheats to close on it.
With the deep safety moving laterally, this frees Gabriel to run into wide-open space down the middle of the field. Hoyer is able to locate him with a long pass. Gabriel fails to track the ball properly, forcing him to dive forward as the ball arrives.
Because of how poorly he tracked the ball, Gabriel isn't able to continue downfield for the long touchdown. He was still able to get up and run to complete a 70-yard play.
The degree of difficulty of this play wasn't high. Gabriel didn't need to create separation or beat a defensive back at the catch point. He essentially just sprinted forward at an angle to proceed wide-open down the middle of the field. It required a level of speed, but not an exceptional one.
Gabriel had two receptions tied for his second-longest of the season. Both went for 49 yards, and both are useful for highlighting where he stands as a receiver.
The first is similar to his 70-yard reception. On this occasion it wasn't play action that drew the defense out of position, instead it was Connor Shaw extending the play. Even before Shaw escaped the pocket, the defense appeared to break.
Once more it was the Baltimore Ravens safety and cornerbacks not being on the same page in Cover 3. The safety stepped forward onto the shallow route, and the cornerback didn't run with Gabriel down the right sideline.
When Shaw looked up, Gabriel was wide-open for a simple reception.
The other 49-yard reception was of a greater degree of difficulty. Once more it came after play action, but this time the play action wasn't relevant to the coverage. Jason McCourty didn't line up on the line of scrimmage, but he was just a few yards away from Gabriel at the snap.
He turned with Gabriel down the sideline and was aggressively positioning himself to cover any backshoulder throw or comeback route.
Gabriel extended his route down the sideline before sinking his hips to slow down. That movement appeared to be one McCourty was anticipating, because he stayed just behind Gabriel's shoulder instead of on top or alongside him through his route to that point.
When Gabriel re-accelerated further down the sideline, McCourty couldn't stay near him. Gabriel created five yards of separation that was taken away by Hoyer's throw.
Hoyer's throw forced Gabriel to slow down and locate the ball. He used his frame to get in between McCourty and the ball, allowing it safe passage into his chest. Gabriel was able to make the reception against tight coverage.
This is the kind of play that Gabriel made on occasion last year. It's the kind of play that is more difficult for him to make, though, because of his size and what he has shown of his skill set to this point.
If tasked with playing on the outside more often, defenses will eventually begin to press him more and force him to prove that he can escape bigger, more athletic cornerbacks. Moving inside would benefit Gabriel's skill set because it would offer him more space to work in.
In that space Gabriel should have enough athleticism to be an effective and versatile receiver, so long as he can become more consistent catching the ball and improve his ball skills.
Andrew Hawkins' presence on the roster could keep him on the outside in 2015 at the very least, though. Hawkins is an electrifying route-runner who has the skill set to excel from the slot, but he has never had the quarterback support to highlight his talent.
Using Gabriel in the same role as Shanahan did last season should keep him effective, but eclipsing his potential of last year will be a tough task to overcome.