The Atlanta Falcons made their “final” cuts to get their roster down to 53 players over the weekend. I make note of the word final because it is rarely the case that an NFL team is actually done making roster moves with basically a week between the deadline and the start of the regular season. That week is full of teams scouring the waiver wire and making trades to shore up problematic positions on their roster.
The Falcons proved to be no different when they claimed wide receiver Taylor Gabriel off waivers on Sunday, likely to shore up their return specialist position. They also announced that wide receiver Nick Williams had been cut to make room for Gabriel.
Gabriel was expected to replace Travis Benjamin as the Browns’ primary punt returner this year and it’s likely that he’ll fill the same role in Atlanta.
The name of Gabriel’s game is speed and he shined in his lone season working under current Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan when the pair were together in Cleveland in 2014. Gabriel averaged 17.3 yards per reception that year, which was the third-highest average of any receiver in the league that season behind only DeSean Jackson and Michael Floyd.
The Browns effectively used Gabriel as a vertical threat in 2014 rather than the traditional slot receiver that most would assume given his small, 5’8″ stature. He clocked a wind-aided 4.28-second 40-yard dash at his pro day at Abilene Christian in 2014, which is calculated to be about 4.41 seconds under normal conditions. His explosiveness and quickness were also on display with an impressive 40-inch vertical jump and 6.84-second three-cone drill.
But draft measurables aren’t necessary to tell the story of what Gabriel brings to the Falcons since he’s shown exactly what he can do over the past two years in the league.
Yet without the presence of Shanahan, Gabriel’s role in the Browns offense dramatically changed as his usage under offensive coordinator John DeFilippo morphed in 2015.
The obvious evidence is seeing his yards-per-reception being more than halved, falling to an average of 8.6 yards this past season.
Gabriel Adds Vertical Potential to Falcons Offense
One can take these numbers a step further and realize that Gabriel wasn’t asked to run vertical routes very often last season by using Pro Football Reference’s play-by-play data to look at deep passes, which based off their game charting is any throw that travels 16 or more yards in the air.
In 2014, exactly one third (24) of Gabriel’s 72 targets were deep throws. That represented the most deep throws for any Browns receiver that season.
However in 2015, that number fell to just nine deep throws, roughly 19 percent of Gabriel’s 48 total targets.
Another way of measuring this is by keeping track of the average depth of target for receivers using “air yards.” To measure this, one simply has to subtract the amount of yards gained after catch from the total yards to indicate how much of a receiver’s yardage comes via the air. ESPN.com has good data for calculating this.
In 2014, Gabriel was near the top of the league in air yardage, averaging 10.64 yards per reception. Among 96 wide receivers that had 40 or more targets that year, it ranked 21st. That mark was also more than that of Julio Jones, who averaged exactly 10.0 air yards per reception.
However in 2015 Gabriel’s air yardage dropped precipitously. He averaged only 4.36 yards in the air per reception last season, which was the fourth lowest of any receiver with 40 or more targets. He only outpaced Golden Tate (3.20), Tavon Austin (2.63) and Eddie Royal (1.38), who were used as traditional slot receivers with a lot of short passes designed to take advantage of their abilities after the catch.
It’s likely that the Falcons have no real desire to use Gabriel in that fashion, and his reunion with Shanahan will allow him more opportunities to stretch defenses in 2016 like he did two years ago.
Falcons Made Efforts to Add Speed at Wide Receiver This Offseason
This is something the Falcons clearly want to do more this season. They already made the addition of Aldrick Robinson to the offense, who will likely be their fourth receiver and help stretch the field. Robinson in fact led all wideouts with 40 or more targets in air yardage back in 2013 under Shanahan, averaging 15.89 yards per reception via the air.
The Falcons need to find ways to get more plays down the field, with Jones being the only real viable vertical target on their roster in 2015. According to Pro Football Reference, Jones’ 42 deep targets were more than the rest of the roster combined (41).
As I mentioned in last week’s column, a foundation of Shanahan’s offense is built upon effectively utilizing the play-action passing game to generate big, explosive plays which were sorely missing from the Falcons offense for much of last season.
The team became too reliant on Jones last year to generate those plays and with the injuries that hampered him during the middle of the season, it was not a coincidence that the team’s offensive struggles began shortly thereafter.
The addition of both Robinson and Gabriel should definitely help in that area. Even should injuries rear their ugly head once more with Jones this season, the team should still have some options that can stretch defenses with their latest additions at wide receiver. While neither Robinson nor Gabriel can come close to replacing Jones fully, one should not see the Falcons offense go completely in the tank as it did in 2013 without Jones in the lineup.
McKissic Had Diminished Value as a Returner
But as mentioned before, it’s likely Gabriel’s ability as a returner which is mainly what attracted the Falcons to him. While Gabriel can provide the occasional big-play spark to the offense, his immediate value will come on special teams where he should be an upgrade over any of the team’s current options on the roster.
Without the addition of Gabriel, the team was likely to rely on some combination of Tevin Coleman, Eric Weems, Nick Williams and/or Justin Hardy to return kickoffs and punts this year, which was not likely to be a great move. That was because the team decided to waive wide receiver J.D. McKissic over the weekend, which proved a surprise to many.
I myself was skeptical of McKissic’s ability to make the roster but after his strong performance in the team’s preseason finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars, figured it would be enough to push him over the hump.
But ultimately the Falcons made the decision to risk exposing McKissic to waivers with the intention of putting him on their practice squad, which they were successfully able to do on Sunday.
It’s understandable why the team wasn’t as keen on carrying McKissic as one of the final 53 players as much as the fan base was. And that basically boils down to a lack of upside.
That lack of upside stems from the expectation that McKissic’s primary value to the team would have been as a return specialist with limited value on offense. That’s because unlike Gabriel, McKissic isn’t a great vertical option.
That was also evidenced by how McKissic was used this summer, with a large portion of his snaps at wide receiver coming in the slot. Yet the Falcons already have a wealth of slot options, including the recently released Williams.
Jones and Sanu are likely to get the majority of slot reps this year as well as the next few years if everything goes according to plan. Hardy also spent a good deal of time in the slot in 2015 and it’s unlikely that McKissic would leapfrog him on the depth chart between now and the end of a rookie contract that runs through the 2018 season.
That leaves McKissic without a real role on offense since his lack of top-end speed would limit his effectiveness in the deep threat role that Robinson is expected to fill.
Without a clear path to playing time on offense, it meant that McKissic’s sole value this year and in the foreseeable future would be as a return specialist.
Return Specialists Will Have Less Value in the Future
There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s clear there may be diminishing returns as time wears on with those types of players. The new league rules instituted this year are expected to marginalize the kickoff from the game by incentivizing teams to take more touchbacks rather than bringing the ball out of the end zone.
Last year only 39.2 percent of kickoffs were returned. Some analysis suggests that figure will drop to 23 percent in 2016, making the value of a kickoff returner pretty much nil in this day and age.
Unfortunately for McKissic, that was the one area where he truly shined this summer.
Where returners can still have an impact is on punts. While a significant portion of punts are also not returned either because they are kicked out of bounds, downed or fair caught, there are no rules that further de-incentivize returns. Thus there is still some small potential that a good returner can dramatically flip field position for his offense.
Unfortunately punt returns are not exactly an area of strength for McKissic. While at Arkansas State, he averaged just 5.6 yards on 23 career punt returns with only one season where he even finished with positive yardage in that arena.
McKissic proved more effective during this past preseason, yet with limited opportunities he did little to really suggest that he was going to be a major factor as a punt returner. I went back and looked at all 15 punt returns the Falcons had this summer in the preseason to keep an eye on how many broken tackles were created due to the team’s collective of returners making guys miss in the open field or breaking through arm tackles. Here are the numbers:
Falcons 2016 Preseason Punt Return Stats
|Player||Returns||Yards||Avg||Broken Tackles||BT per Return|
Based off the limited data, Williams proved the most effective punt returner. While McKissic was arguably the second best, nothing in his performance suggested that he was going to be the next big thing as far as punt returns go.
Gabriel on the other hand did a little better on his five punt returns this summer for the Browns. Not only did he average 13.2 yards per return, but my count saw him break a total of six tackles, little more than one per return.
Because of the diminishing value of kickoff returns, the league appears to be moving in a direction where teams are regularly putting offensive contributors back on punts to minimize their need to use an extra roster space for a returner.
Looking at last season’s 10 best returners in terms of average yards per punt return, eight of them were regular contributors to their respective team’s offense.
The two exceptions were Baltimore’s Kaelin Clay and Tampa Bay’s Bobby Rainey. And the latter actually led his team in rushing back in 2013, so it’s not as if Rainey is incapable of contributing more to the Buccaneers offense. But the presences of Doug Martin and Charles Sims means he doesn’t necessarily have to.
More and more teams are turning to offensive regulars like Danny Amendola, Antonio Brown, Darren Sproles, Jarvis Landry and Benjamin to return punts for them. Even Dwayne Harris served as the New York Giant’s de facto third wide receiver with Victor Cruz out of the lineup last season.
This is why it was understandable that the Falcons tinkered with the idea of having either Hardy or Williams return punts for them during the regular season based off their deployment during the preseason. It’s also likely why it an ESPN report mentioned back in March before the start of free agency that the team was looking for a wide receiver that could help out on special teams, potentially putting a player like Benjamin atop their radar.
This idea of having potential starting receivers (or players at any position such as Arizona’s Patrick Peterson) potentially double as a punt returner might be the new norm of the future, with the true “specialists” like players such as Josh Cribbs, Dante Hall or Leon Washington becoming relics of the past.
Thus why it was a little questionable when the Falcons opted to draft Devin Fuller in the seventh round of the 2016 NFL Draft given that current trend. Fuller is now set to miss his rookie season with a shoulder injury, which may effectively end his chances of sticking long-term with the Falcons.
However at least with Fuller, unlike McKissic, there is at least a sliver of a possibility that he could potentially be that vertical threat akin to Robinson down the road. While Fuller certainly possesses the speed, he was rarely used as a deep threat during his days at UCLA, so he’s by no means a slam dunk there.
Fuller will have an opportunity to come back next season to disprove skeptics like myself, but if Gabriel effectively produces as a returner for the Falcons this year, it’ll be a tall order for him to leap frog him. Instead Fuller might find himself in the same boat as McKissic, as a practice-squad player that largely serves as insurance in case there’s an injury or Gabriel struggles with full-time duties.
Either way if players like Fuller and McKissic are deemed expendable because the Falcons have better options to choose from on offense, it’s a good sign. Because like the Leon Washingtons of the league, it could mean perhaps the team’s lack of strong wide receiver depth will also be a relic of the past.