At the surface, a four-year, $26 million contract with $14 million guaranteed for Taylor Gabriel is kind of a stretch by the Chicago Bears.
We know Gabriel provides needed speed to the Bears offense and that in a bullish market for wide receivers he was going to get that kind of money from some team one way or another. In that regard, the Bears didn’t overspend at all.
However, when you consider his history of productivity and the steep decline his performance endured from 2016 to 2017, it’s certainly possible that this contract eventually looks like a bad one for the Bears. But it was a risk worth taking.
Essentially, what the Bears were willing to pay for was the idea that Gabriel could replicate some of the magic of his 2016 season. He caught 35 passes for 579 yards and 6 receiving touchdowns (along with another rushing score) for the Atlanta Falcons that year and three of those touchdown receptions were longer than 40 yards.
From both the slot and on the outside, Gabriel was meant to stretch the field and provide space underneath. Despite the possibility of catching long touchdowns as a deep threat, it’s a less glamorous role than many would think because it’s primarily a diversionary tactic meant to hold or distract a safety to create more space underneath.
But with Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu on the outside (and Devonta Freeman underneath to a lesser extent), safeties didn’t show Gabriel enough respect and he made some big plays. In 2017, despite one additional target than he received in 2016, Gabriel had two fewer receptions, 201 fewer receiving yards and five fewer touchdown catches.
The result was a combination of a number of things. He was deemed more of a threat by safeties, Sanu and Jones were slightly less productive, Matt Ryan was less accurate and the offense as a whole was simply less efficient.
For a player like Gabriel, there’s no overcoming all of that. He’s not going to take games over at 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds. He can change the game in an instant, but the circumstances all have to be right.
He’s got to benefit from the right coverage (or preferably a broken one) and he needs his teammates to properly space the field. Then he needs the ball to be delivered on time and accurately so he can show off the speed.
In Chicago, the Bears think they’ve created a roster that can create the sort of mismatches needed to get Gabriel the coverages he feasts on. Combined with Allen Robinson on the outside and Anthony Miller, who can also play inside and outside, the Bears have a diverse receiving group that can force defenses to cover various depths across the field.
Add in Tarik Cohen, Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen and maybe even Kevin White, and they become even more difficult to defend. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky has shown the accuracy and athleticism that leads you to believe he can steward that offense, it’s simply a matter of him continuing to develop his football sense and putting that accumulation of talent in the right spots pre-snap to take advantage.
And that’s inevitably what facilitated the Gabriel signing. If Trubisky fails, we’ll likely look back on the Gabriel signing as a failure too because he’s not going to create many of his own opportunities.
But if you’re Ryan Pace and you’re confident that the offense you’re putting together can gel quickly, a player like Gabriel was an absolute necessity. And even if the numbers never seem to live up to the $6.5 million per year price tag, the hidden value he provides by stretching defenses will make the signing worth it.