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Sculpting the Offense: How the Bears can get the most out of Taylor Gabriel

In the first edition of a new offseason series, we’re going to dive into how the Bears can work their offense around Taylor Gabriel’s strengths.

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Taylor Gabriel will play a big role in the Bears’ offense in 2018.
Chicago Bears

New Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy has been deemed by many as an offensive mastermind. The former Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator is perceived by many in the league to be one of the best young minds in football today. He will look to bring his version of the West Coast offense over to the Windy City and hope that he reaches the same success there as he did with the Chiefs.

To ensure that his offense runs smoothly, he and general manager Ryan Pace made it the focal point of their offseason to surround second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky with talented weapons. To do so, they added Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton in free agency, and they drafted Anthony Miller in the second round. Needless to say, that plan was executed quite well.

Those four join an offensive core that already features the likes of Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen and Adam Shaheen as young weapons that the team can build around. Each of the Bears’ offensive playmakers bring something unique to the table, and it will be Nagy’s job to make sure that each of their strengths are catered to.

In the first edition of what I’m hoping will be a multiple-part series throughout the dull part of the offseason, I’m going to look at what exactly those strengths are for each player and how Nagy can apply what he ran at Kansas City and make some magic happen.

We’re going to start things off with one of the Bears’ free agent signings: Taylor Gabriel.

Contrary to popular belief, Gabriel is not a slot receiver. It’s an easy assumption to make, one that I made at one point, too. However, most of his snaps as a member of the Atlanta Falcons came on the outside, and that will be the case in Chicago, as well. It has already been reported that Gabriel will be the team’s Z receiver, which makes a lot of sense. While the Z and the X both line up on the outside, the Z doesn’t line up directly on the line of scrimmage, and they can be used in motion or moved around to the slot at times. To some extent, it’s a hybrid of the X and the Y receiver spots, the latter of which being the slot receiver.

If there’s one thing about Gabriel’s skillset that stands out the most, it’s his speed. Considering that he ran a 4.27 40-yard dash at his Pro Day back in 2014 (with the wind blowing against his back, sure, but it’s still a very impressive feat), it isn’t surprising to see that he has become one of the league’s better deep threats. He’s elusive in the open field, sure, but the best part about his game is his ability to burn cornerbacks early on deep routes like fades, gos, seams and deep crosses.

That said, Nagy should make sure to take advantage of Gabriel’s blazing speed by making him the primary deep threat in Chicago’s offense. NFL Next Gen Stats has a couple of route charts for Gabriel, all of them having been from the 2016 season. Kyle Shanahan, the offensive coordinator for the Falcons at that time, ran an offense that was West Coast-based, as Nagy’s offense is, so it’s a good indicator of how Gabriel should be used with the Bears.

Below is his route chart from the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots.

It’s not the biggest sample size in the world, but it gives off a good sample of what Gabriel is best at: running deep routes that go more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage.

The next chart shows his Week 10 performance against the Philadelphia Eagles. He only had one catch in this game, but the chart shows that he ran predominantly deep routes the whole game. The deep fade route in particular is intriguing, as it shows that Gabriel went about 32 yards before making the catch. That aggressive style of play calling was severely lacking in the Bears’ offense in 2017. For reference, Trubisky only threw 30 deep passes last season, whereas Alex Smith, Nagy’s quarterback in Kansas City, threw 62 deep passes.

This third chart is a little bit different from the other two, as it shows less of Gabriel running deep routes and more of his ability to pick up yards after the catch. These are his routes from his Week 12 outing against the Arizona Cardinals.

The two routes that go behind the line of scrimmage are bubble screens, and the green lines that stem from those little white hooks are the yards that he gained after the catch. Nagy told the media after minicamp on Tuesday that screens will be a huge part of the Bears’ offense, so expect Gabriel to be one of Trubisky’s top targets on screen plays.

If we take a look at Nagy’s offense in Kansas City, we’ll see that he used Tyreek Hill in a similar way that the Falcons used Gabriel in 2016. This is Hill’s route chart in Week 13 of this season against the New York Jets.

Hill’s body of work is overall larger than Gabriel’s, but the same concept of utilizing the speedy receiver and letting him run deep routes is apparent in both players’ cases. They were both also used at the Z receiver spot, so a lot of what Hill ran at Kansas City will likely be similar to what Gabriel will run in Chicago (but not everything, we’ll get to that in a later installment).

Taylor Gabriel is an athletic receiver who can take the top off the defense and burn cornerbacks better than most of the players that the Bears have had on their roster in recent years. Expect Nagy’s scheme to play up to his strengths by lining him up all over the field and making him their primary deep ball threat.