Old rivals Gabriel, Butler will renew acquaintances in Super Bowl

Old rivals Gabriel, Butler will renew acquaintances in Super Bowl

HOUSTON - Who knew that Nov. 3, 2012 in Abilene, Texas, would form the foundation for a friendship and a rivalry that will be reborn on Super Bowl Sunday here in Houston? 


But that’s exactly what happened when Abilene Christian upset 13th-ranked West Alabama 22-16 in front of a whopping 3,517 fans at Shotwell Stadium.

Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler donned West Alabama’s red, white and black uniform that day, while Falcons receiver Taylor Gabriel was wearing Abilene’s purple and white. The ACU Wildcats jumped out to a surprising 13-0 lead before West Alabama forced overtime with just 13 seconds left in the fourth quarter. But Abilene scored on its first possession of overtime, and when Kyle Caldwell’s pass feel incomplete at the host’s 9-yard line, the celebration was on.

“It was a big win for us,” recalled Gabriel at the Falcons media availability yesterday. 

Butler was a little hazier on the details.

“I think it was 2013. Or 2012. One of ‘em.”

I asked both men who won the individual battle. Again, it depends on what side you’re coming from.

“I mean I think I had five catches for 80 something yards [five for 71 according to the box score], recalled Gabriel, then he smiled, “So you would say I won that.”

“I don’t think we was doing any matching back then so ah...just stats,” said Butler, who had two pass breakups and four tackles that day. 

Little did the two know, but they would meet again as teammates on the National roster in the 2014 Medal of Honor Bowl game in Charleston, South Carolina. That’s where the friendship blossomed.

“Most definitely,” said Butler. “We had good conversations, just enjoying mingling around, talking about football, talking about where we wanted to go in life.”

“He’s good friend of mine. I have so much respect for him,” Gabriel said. “In fact, his path is the same as mine but he made that big splash interception in the Super Bowl.”

Gabriel claimed he knew back at that Bowl game that Butler was destined for the NFL and that plays like that Super Bowl-saving interception of Russell Wilson was in Butler’s future. Gabriel, however, thought his own path might be a bit tougher. 

“Malcolm is a very, very, very charismatic guy and he worked hard ,” said Gabriel. “I knew he was going to make it to the league. It was just the fact if I was going to do my thing to get there. He’s one of the best cornerbacks in this league. I think he’s earned that.”

Gabriel had support at Abilene. Grant Boone, the voice of the Wildcats, recalls watching Gabriel and thinking “he’s next” in the school’s recent run of turning out pro players.

“Gabriel was a human highlight reel from his first year,” Boone told me. “And we were in a stretch that had seen Danieal Manning drafted in round two and make the Super Bowl for the Bears in 2007. Then Johnny Knox and Bernard Scott were taken in 2009, Clyde Gates in 2011 and Daryl Richardson in 2012. So, we'd begun to think Gabriel's being at ACU wouldn't hold him back.”

It did, although not for too long.

“Came down to his size,” added Boone. “But his work ethic and speed - both his acceleration and as weird as it sounds - his ability to stop quickly is what made us think he had a shot.”

A shot Gabriel fully realized this season, catching 35 passes for 579 yards and six touchdowns after being cast off by the Cleveland Browns.

Butler reflected on that, and his own journey, saying simply, “It’s about taking advantage of your opportunities. That, and working hard and just trying to stay consistent.”

Both players have done just that to solidify their places in the NFL. Now, it’s on to the bragging rights on a much bigger stage, NRG Stadium, which seats nearly 70,000 more fans who stood in Shotwell Stadium for that 22-16 upset back in November of 2012.

What Bill Belichick's pro day tour tells us about Patriots draft strategy

What Bill Belichick's pro day tour tells us about Patriots draft strategy

It’s one of the rites of spring. This is the time of year NFL fans across America overemphasize the importance of their team’s coach or general manager popping up at a particular program’s pro day. You can set your watch to it. 

Coach X showed up at University Y so you KNOW he wants Player Z!

The pro day circuit is just one aspect of the pre-draft preparation process for NFL clubs, though. The information gleaned from stops on college campuses through March and early April is, as Bill Belichick might say, just part of the evaluation mosaic. 

The tape matters. The combine matters. Private workouts matter. Official visits matter. Claiming a meeting or an interview between a player and a club at any one of these spots will dictate a draft-day match is foolhardy. 

Still . . . it's interesting to track teams’ whereabouts in order to see if any trends develop.

Here we'll lay out where the two primary players in the Patriots front office, Belichick and Nick Caserio, have been spotted over the last couple weeks since pro days kicked off. Their itinerary may be nothing but a sliver of a view into where the team's interests lay, but we’ll take that sliver with the understanding that it is what it is.


Belichick made his seemingly annual trip to the University of Alabama to catch up with old friend Nick Saban and see some of the college game's top prospects. The Crimson Tide could have more than a dozen players drafted, and most of their top prospects reside on the defensive side of the ball. Receiver Calvin Ridley, defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and defensive tackle Da'Ron Payne shoild be long gone by the time the Patriots pick at No. 31, but there are plenty of other talented defenders they could have a shot at. Linebacker Rashaan Evans (6-foot-3, 234) would be an interesting fit for a defense that could use an addition to its second level. Defensive end Da'Shawn Hand (6-4, 297) is intriguing because of his versatility as a base end who could rush from the inside in sub situations. Safety Ronnie Harrison (6-3, 214) also seems like a Patriots type. Even punter JK Scott could be on their radar. 


Caserio headed to Wisconsin's pro day, where linebacker Jack Cichy posted a very strong short-shuttle (4.28 seconds) and three-cone times (7.10). He's an off-the-ball type who measured in at 6-foot-2, 234 pounds and is projected by to go on Day 3. The Badgers don't have quite as many pro prospects as Alabama, but they have seven or eight who could hear their names called on draft weekend. Corner Nick Nelson (5-11, 208) and edge defender Leon Jacobs (6-3, 230) were two of Wisconsin's best players, and would’ve been worth a look from the Patriots director of player personnel. 


Belichick kept a close eye on the defensive linemen participating in NC State's pro day Monday. Bradley Chubb is expected to be the first defensive player taken in the draft so the Patriots won't have a shot at him (which Belichick admitted to Chubb following the workout), but defensive tackle BJ Hill (6-4, 315) may have been of interest. He's thought of as a mid-rounder after a very strong showing at the Senior Bowl and a solid combine. Kentavius Street (6-2, 280) is really powerful as a defensive end and could be had toward the end of the draft. Belichick also reportedly spent some time watching backs Nyheim Hines (5-8, 197) and Jaylen Samuels (5-11, 233) run routes. 

Caserio, meanwhile, kept a close eye on the workout put together by Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside (6-2, 201). Our Mike Giardi put together a piece on Woodside, who tested well at the combine and is considered to have a good football IQ, earlier this offseason. Read it. Caserio was joined at Toledo by Patriots scout Patrick Stewart, who was also present for Richmond quarterback Kyle Lauletta's pro day.


Belichick went from NC State to South Carolina where he reportedly met with tight end Hayden Hurst for the second time. Hurst (6-4, 250), a walk-on who played two years of minor-league baseball, may be the first tight end taken in this year's draft. Linebacker Skai Moore (6-2, 221) was extremely productive for the Gamecocks, leading the team in tackles all four years of his career, which Belichick clearly appreciated. Moore told reporters after his pro day work out that he met with Belichick for an hour and that Belichick told him he's a great player. Belichick and Moore also met at the combine, Moore said.

So what can we make of Belichick and Caserio's stops thus far? We’re careful not to make too much of these stops visits, but here are some quick-hitting thoughts . . .

* They appear to want more information on the draft's second (or third) tier of quarterbacks. It should come as no surprise that the Patriots won't be in the running to select passers like USC's Sam Darnold, UCLA's Josh Rosen or Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield. But the group that includes Woodside, Lauletta and others -- perhaps Washington State's Luke Falk, whose pro day will be at Utah State on Mar. 28, Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph, and Western Kentucky's Mike White -- seems to be of interest.

* Are the Patriots looking for their next playmaker at tight end? Even with Rob Gronkowski on the roster (assuming he returns in 2018) the Patriots could use another pass-catcher at this spot. Their interest in Hurst is intriguing. If they pop up at South Dakota State's pro day on Mar. 30 -- home of Dallas Goedert -- then that might be an indication they are considering a running mate and heir apparent for Gronkowski. 

* Outside of offensive tackle, off-the-ball linebacker might be the biggest need the Patriots have not addressed via trade or free agency this offseason. It would come as little surprise if they opted for a rookie (or two) who play that position in this year's draft. Evans is among the draft's most talented at that spot, but there are some questions around the league as to whether or not he'd be the traffic cop that, for instance, Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower have been for the Patriots. Getting a closer look at Cichy and Moore would also seem to indicate that New England is taking a close look at a newer (smaller) breed at that spot. Belichick has long liked bigger linebackers, but as the speed of the game picks up perhaps he’ll be more open to going small(ish) here. The Patriots were represented at Viriginia Tech's pro day on Mar. 14 (home of top linebacker prospect Tremaine Edmunds) and it'll be interesting to see if they show up at Boise State (home of Leighton Vander Esch) on April 3. Belichick is reportedly headed to Georgia's pro day on Wednesday, where he'll have a chance to see athletic off-the-ball 'backer Roquan Smith and athletic edge player Lorenzo Carter. Either would immediately provide the Patriots front-seven with a shot of athleticism. 

* That Belichick has seen a boatload of talented defensive linemen at Alabama and NC State isn't a shocker. While they may not have a glaring need up front for 2018 — especially after trading for Danny Shelton and signing Adrian Clayborn — both Shelton and Malcom Brown could be elsewhere in 2019 if the Patriots don't pick up their fifth-year options. Trey Flowers is also headed into a contract year. 


Quick Slants the Podcast: Ranking the Patriots additions, are the Patriots better defensively, but worse offensively?

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Quick Slants the Podcast: Ranking the Patriots additions, are the Patriots better defensively, but worse offensively?

Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry go over the moves the Patriots have made this offseason and rank their favorite moves and what to expect from those players.

(1:00) Ranking the Patriots acquisitions so far.

(5:30) Will Danny Shelton or Jason McCourty have a bigger impact n the Patriots defense?

(13:00) What can Patriots fans realistically expect from Cordarrelle Patterson?

(16:00) Are the Patriots a better team now than they were at the end of the Super Bowl?

(17:00) What is the next position in need for the Patriots?

(23:00) How concerning is the tension level between Belichick/Brady/Gronkowski, when should Patriots fans start to panic?