'Turbo' Taylor Gabriel believes he has plenty of explosive plays left

Taylor Gabriel insists he still has the playmaking ability he used to score seven touchdowns in 2016. Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports

There was a time not too long ago when Taylor Gabriel said he wanted to be with the Atlanta Falcons "forever." Unfortunately, the soon-to-be free agent wide receiver knows fulfilling such a desire is out of his control.

Gabriel set the bar high with an impressive 2016 season when he topped all Falcons -- including Julio Jones -- with six touchdown receptions. Those scores averaged 42.7 yards, earned him the nickname "Turbo" and were part of the reason the Falcons rode the league's most explosive offense all the way to the Super Bowl.

But this past season, Gabriel wasn't nearly as much of a big-play threat as he scored just one touchdown on 41 total touches. Now the Falcons, who need a deep threat to complement Jones, may move forward without Gabriel.

He understands the possibility and is ready to accept it.

"I love the Falcons but, like I always say, it's a business, man," Gabriel told ESPN. "You never know what's going on upstairs and things like that. But I love the Falcons. I'm very grateful for the opportunity that they gave me.

"Going to a Super Bowl with those guys in that locker room, the brotherhood and being a part of that, that's a blessing, man. That's why I said I want to be a Falcon forever. That's something special. That's something that you don't get going from team to team. And that's a brotherhood that I'll forever, forever remember if I'm with them or if I'm not with them."

Gabriel, a former undrafted player who made the league only after a tryout, is used to proving himself. The 5-foot-8, 165-pound speedster thought he made enough of an impression on the Cleveland Browns but ended up being released before the 2016 season and claimed by the Falcons.

"The last time I was cut, but this time I'm a free agent, so I don't know if I have a choice to, I guess, pick a team now," Gabriel said. "I'm really not sure how it's all going to work. But I will say that I'm just grateful I was able to play with the Falcons and grateful to go to a Super Bowl."

Gabriel, 27, insists he still has the explosive, playmaking ability that made him such a commodity two seasons ago when he caught 35 passes for 579 yards on 51 targets (no drops) and added a rushing touchdown to his six touchdown receptions. In answering why those explosive touchdowns were missing this past season as his average dipped from 16.5 yards per catch to 11.5, Gabriel didn't use his recovery from an offseason leg injury as an excuse.

"It was just an injury and it was just us being cautious about it," he said. "It was just like a little strain in the foot; nothing too crazy."

Asked if the lack of practice time going into the season affected his chemistry with quarterback Matt Ryan, Gabriel quickly dismissed such a theory.

"I don't think so just because me and Matt, we had plenty time in 2016 to get the timing down," Gabriel said. "He's used to my speed. He's a great quarterback. He has a great arm. So I don't think it was anything on timing. I don't think it slowed anything down."

Gabriel didn't point blame at first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, either, although Sarkisian took his share of outside criticism for not maintaining the high level of offensive efficiency that former coordinator Kyle Shanahan established.

"I'm not sure what happened," Gabriel said. "Just the offense, in general, we were just trying to get those explosive plays in. I'm not surprised that people were trying to take those deep balls away and take me out the game, as well. It's a lot of different things.

"At the same time, Sarkisian, he's a great offensive coordinator and a great mind. You can say we missed plays and things like that, but it's football. Sometimes the ball goes your ways; sometimes it doesn't go your way. Sarkisian, he's a hell of an offensive coordinator."

Gabriel hopes to be judged by his positive plays over the last four seasons.

"I would just say to teams to look at the film and my time in Atlanta, my time in Cleveland," Gabriel said. "Just making those big splash plays, and being a hard worker and team player, while buying into whatever they have going and what they need at the time.

"Just me being in Atlanta and learning from Julio Jones and Matt Ryan and Coach [Dan] Quinn and the GM, Thomas [Dimitroff], and things like that, I feel like I can help an organization. I would bring a winning attitude to an organization, and also speed and quickness."

Gabriel knows he can just always rely on speed, although he insisted he ran a wind-aided 4.27 in the 40 coming out of Abilene Christian. There is one specific element of his game Gabriel hopes to improve going into next season.

"I feel like I can get more into detail with being more of a scientist of the game," Gabriel said. "Not just outrunning someone, but really dissecting these DBs and the concepts and what's going on exactly. I kind of want to be a quarterback of the game, not just out there being a wide receiver."

Gabriel, now represented by Todd France, should generate some free-agent interest. He thrived under Shanahan in both Cleveland and Atlanta, and Shanahan is now the coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Former Falcons quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur is now the offensive coordinator in Tennessee. And a high-ranking member of the Browns previously told ESPN there was regret about letting Gabriel go.

"It's a blessing just to have known those guys," Gabriel said of the coaches around the league. "The opportunity, whether it's with this organization or another organization, is just having the ability to make the big splash plays that teams need."