Falcons WR Taylor Gabriel won't sneak up on Patriots

HOUSTON -- It's easy to overlook Taylor Gabriel.

Undrafted out of tiny Abilene Christian University in 2014 and discarded by the woebegone Browns in early September, the 5-foot-8, 170-pound Taylor will be the smallest player in Super Bowl LI.

Just don't expect him to sneak up on a Patriots defense that watched the Falcons wideout break free for a game-breaking play of 40 or more yards in eight of 13 regular-season games this season.

"I don't know why he's (viewed as) a sleeper," New England safety Patrick Chung said Monday night, acknowledging Gabriel's ability to take the top off a defense.

Gabriel is emblematic of the difference between last year's disappointing, one-dimensional offense and this year's historically great attack.

Overly reliant upon Julio Jones to carry the offense in 2015, the Falcons placed an emphasis on speed and urgent playmaking ability this past offseason. When Gabriel was sent to the waiver wire during Cleveland's final cuts, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan jumped at the chance to reunite with an explosive run-after-catch threat who averaged 17.3 yards per catch as a Browns rookie in 2014.

Importing Gabriel and deep flier Aldrick Robinson to join second-year tailback Tevin Coleman, Shanahan suddenly found himself with an embarrassment of riches behind the league's most dominant wideout talent.

Shanahan has spent the season devising plays for three role players with sub-4.40 speed, headlined by the 4.27 forty-yard dash Gabriel blazed at his college pro day.

"I'm the fastest guy on the offense," Gabriel insisted earlier this week.

Although Gabriel acknowledges that Kansas City's rookie phenom Tyreek Hill is a "burner," he's unwilling to take a backseat to anyone in the speed department.

"He's not faster than me," a grinning Gabriel told Around The NFL on Wednesday. "You can't say anybody's faster than you."

Although Gabriel lacks Hill's game-changing impact on special teams, he infuses Shanahan's offense with a similar potential to score from anywhere on the field.

"Big ups to Kyle to put me in position to make plays," Gabriel said, "and I have made a lot of splash plays."

Gabriel's effectiveness goes beyond electric speed. His lightning-quick cutting ability not only allows him to lose cornerbacks with devastating double moves, but also makes him one of the most elusive receivers with the ball in his hands.

"I feel like I have something that a lot of people don't have," Gabriel explained, "and that's the ability to change directions while running full speed."

Asked which receivers he admires most, Gabriel rattled off the names of Steve Smith, DeSean Jackson and Antonio Brown -- "little guys like that who took advantage of their opportunities."

Gabriel might not be capable of carrying an offense as the primary pass-catching threat like that trio, but he's the ideal complementary piece for a unit that boasts an uncanny play-caller, an MVP favorite at quarterback and a legitimate No. 1 receiver.

With Shanahan and Matt Ryan exploiting his strengths and Jones drawing coverage away, Gabriel recorded a staggering 139.9 passer rating when targeted this season. That's the highest mark for any player with 50 or more targets, per NFL Research.

The Falcons are clicking on all cylinders entering February, becoming the first team to advance to the Super Bowl by scoring 30 or more points in each of its previous six games. Gabriel is a key cog in that relentless machine -- and the Patriots know it.