In late May, one week after the NFL draft, the Cleveland Browns held rookie minicamp. The Browns drafted six players, and obviously, six football players can't effectively practice by themselves.
So Cleveland brought in roughly 35 tryout players, essentially filling space to help the team's "real rookies" develop. For most of these young men, this is the only taste of the NFL they will ever get. They walk away with a bunch of Cleveland Browns gear and memories to one day tell their grandkids.
Undrafted rookie wide receiver Taylor Gabriel was one of those tryout players who was supposed to be sent packing. Instead, he did the opposite: he's unpacked his belongings in Cleveland, because the 5-foot-8 receiver is here to stay.
In four preseason games, Gabriel led the Browns with 10 catches, 128 yards and electrifying 68-yard kickoff return. He consistently proved he could get open, even with Cleveland's starting lineup against the Bears. Gabriel's shot up the depth chart, where the Browns list him as the team's number three receiver.
"Usually you worry about young guys coming in – an undrafted guy who really just came here and tried out – that the game might be too big for him," said offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. "The thing that I've been most impressed with through the preseason is we kept going to him and he never seemed like the game was too big for him. He caught every ball, got up the field. He's not scared of contact. He has fun out there."
As the summer wore on, the Browns began snipping down their roster. And each day cuts were due, Gabriel paced around nervously in his room at the team hotel. Although he thought making the 53-man roster was a distinct possibility, like every rookie, Gabriel had growing pains. Plus, there were several proven veterans he was competing with at receiver. But he still prevailed.
The 23-year-old rookie knows the Steelers probably don't even really know he is. And that's the way he likes it.
"I feel like I've always had a chip on my shoulder just through life, just me being a little guy," said Gabriel. "I feel like me going into that game, I have to have a chip on my shoulder. I'm excited but at the same time I want to be prepared. If that means me staying here longer and going through film and making sure I'm ready and prepared, I feel like I need to do that."
Gabriel hinted he may return a kickoff or two against Pittsburgh. And remember, Gabriel was the most effective receiver with quarterback Brian Hoyer against the Bears. A few targets should come the rookie's way on Sunday.
Buster Skrine: 'We have the most depth in the league'
**On Thursday, we profiled how the Cleveland Browns' secondary became the number one priority this offseason. Starting cornerback Buster Skrine thinks from top to bottom, the Browns' unit could do some elite things in 2014.
"I really feel like we have the most depth in the league," said Skrine. "We have a lot of cornerbacks that can play. A lot of safeties that can play. Just with Donte here, he's a leader. He brings a lot. He teaches the secondary a lot."
Teaching. It might be the most important word associated with the secondary. In position group meetings, their classroom is known to be one of the most interactive. And it's not just the football intellect Whitner, either.
"We all give each other advice," said Skrine. "Even if Justin [Gilbert] sees something on film, he can give older guys some advice."
Skrine, 25, has been busy tutoring Gilbert on strengthening his short term memory. If they've watched recent film, the Steelers very well could be planning on attacking Gilbert. The Rams and Bears were able to throw three touchdowns by the rookie cornerback. If that is the case, it's up to Gilbert to prove Pittsburgh wrong by tightening up his coverage and tackling skills.
"When I was making mistakes earlier in my career, they were going to keep coming at me regardless," said Skrine. "It's just like smelling blood in the water. The shark is going to keep coming your way.
"Really you don't have a choice," continued Skrine about letting a big play happen. "If you give up a play, the quarterback is just going to come right back at you. Eventually you just kind of build a dog mentality. They are going to keep coming my way, I know they are going to come my way. So you just prepare yourself to be a better corner for the next game or even next series."
This will be Skrine's fourth season opener. If the Browns are able to ride the bus home from Pittsburgh with a 1-0 record, the cornerback thinks the momentum would be real heading back home for two games in Cleveland.
"With all the new staff, the new coaches, the new players on the team…it would be a big win," said Skrine. "Division win, starting the season. It would probably be the biggest win of my career so far."
Browns player Tweets of the day
Good to see Pierce Brosnan get back on the horse with November Man. Pretty shocking he hasn't played a significant role since Mrs. Doubtfire — Christian Yount (@TheYount) September 5, 2014
My beautiful baby girl, Mila Marie Shaw. pic.twitter.com/dD8ZBNqBAz — Connor Shaw (@cmshaw9) September 4, 2014