Do the Browns have a diamond in the rough in undrafted WR Gabriel?
BEREA, Ohio — As reporters gathered around his locker after practice on Thursday, Taylor Gabriel tapped Paul Kruger on the shoulder to let him know that the media wanted to talk to him.
However, Kruger (who has the locker next to Gabriel) informed him otherwise.
"They’re here to talk to you," Kruger said.
Gabriel is one of the biggest surprises of the Browns this season and he is expected to have a prominent role in the season opener Sunday against the Steelers.
Gabriel, who started his trek to the NFL as a tryout player in the spring after being undrafted and unsigned immediately after the draft, will open the season as the Browns third receiver.
Along the way, he was chosen over 12-year veteran Nate Burleson among others.
"I’m excited," Gabriel said. "But I just want to be ready and prepared when I go out there."
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan pronounced Gabriel as the third receiver after practice on Thursday.
"I’ve been really happy with Gabriel," Shanahan said. "To come in as a tryout player and to be our third receiver right now…he’s had a hell of a camp, did a great job. We knew how fast he was, knew he was a talented guy. Usually you worry about young guys coming in — an undrafted guy who really just came here and tried out — that the game might be too big for him.
"The thing that I’ve been most impressed with through the preseason (is) we kept going to him and he never seemed like the game was too big for him," Shanahan said. "He caught every ball, got up the field. He’s not scared of contact. He has fun out there."
Gabriel wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine, but posted a 4.28 time in the 40-yard dash at his Pro Day. He is one player that can challenge Travis Benjamin and Buster Skrine for the fastest player on the Browns roster.
Gabriel, who is slight at 5-8, 167 said he’s always been battling his size.
"I feel like I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder because I’m a little guy," he said. "For me to play at the top of my game, I have to have a chip on my shoulder."
Gabriel played at Abilene Christian where he appeared in 45 games and amassed 215 receptions for 3,028 yards, including 27 touchdowns. In his senior season, Gabriel had 73 catches for 1,061 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Gabriel said despite his size, he feels he plays physical when asked to describe his style of play.
"My speed and my agility and being physical," he said. "A lot of people wouldn’t think that I’m physical."
Gabriel led the Browns in the preseason in receptions with 10 for 128 yards, including a long of 22 yards. He played with the first team in the final preseason game and caught two passes for 38 yards in the team’s 85-yard opening game drive. He had three catches for 32 yards in his first preseason game and followed it up with three more for 35 yards against the Redskins.
"I’m a rookie and I’m just learning day-to-day," Gabriel said. "I was just blessed to be out there," Gabriel said. "It felt good being out there and getting the butterflies out. I’m feeling very confident and very focused. I’m more comfortable with the playbook and I’m able to play faster, so I think that would be the reason why [I’ve improved]."
McQuistan, Hughes Out; Bryant Doubtful: The Browns ruled OL Paul McQuistan (ankle) and DL John Hughes (hamstring) out for Sunday’s game, but listed DL Desmond Bryant (wrist) as doubtful.
The LaBeau Factor: Pettine has a lot of respect for legendary Steelers Defensive Coordinator Dick LaBeau, who has coached in the NFL over 40 years after a long playing career in the NFL.
"Yeah, that’s amazing," Pettine said. "Every time I see him, too, it’s just like I can’t believe that guy is closer to 80 than 70. He’s just one of those guys. It’s amazing how he’s lasted, his ability to adapt over the years, to change his coaching style and change his system to kind of match, to keep up with the times. You get some coaches that kind of have their prime, and then when the game changes on them, they can’t keep up. They can’t adapt, and that’s where he’s been special over the years. He’s a Hall of Fame defensive coordinator. He’s a guy that we went against when we were in Baltimore, a handful of times in New York, and you knew you were always in for a long day when you went against him just because they were going to be not only well-coached from a fundamental standpoint — they were going to get off blocks and tackle — but they were going to be pretty cutting edge scheme-wise too."
Big Ben Theory: Pettine thinks QB Ben Roethlisberger is one of the tougher quarterbacks in the NFL to bring down.
"He’s a guy that the play’s never over, and I think that’s important," Pettine said. "We would always tell our guys that the play begins when he makes the first guy miss. He just has that uncanny ability, and it’s one of the reasons he’s one of the league’s elite quarterbacks. Just physically, guys have a hard time bringing him down, and even just how many throws has he made with guys just hanging on him.
"It’s important that the guys on the backend understand that just covering the conventional route, the play’s not over, then a lot of times it’ll turn into, essentially, street ball where he gets out of the pocket and guys break off routes," he said. "I think they’re the best in the league at it. It’s something that I think early on in his career he did a lot of that, but he’s become more of a true pocket passer. He doesn’t have to extend plays as much just because he knows the read. He’ll take what the defense gives him, but he still has that ability when things break down to get out and make some plays. We went through it last year in Buffalo. We were playing him pretty tough, and then in the second quarter, there was one where he was going down and just kind of flipped it sideways to the running back who was in pass protection. Next thing you know, it was a 30-yard gain and led to a touchdown. Those are the types of things you have to try to limit. I don’t know if you can stop him, but you have to have that awareness of his ability to extend the play.
Pettine said earlier in his career, Roethlisberger relied more on his legs than his arm.
"His ability to make guys miss forced (teams to make him) throw from the pocket and he was able to do that," he said. "He’s become a true pocket passer but still has the ability when a play breaks down to make something happen."
O’Neil said the defense respects what Roethlisberger can do.
"He is a dual threat quarterback," O’Neil said.