Andy Isabella, a 5-foot-8, 186-pound wideout from UMass, just might be the Julio Jones of slot receiver prospects.
Isabella has shredded essentially every secondary he's faced with lightning-quick cuts, nuanced route running, and souped-up speed ... which has led to him routinely creating separation against high-level competition in college.
In 12 games this season, Isabella had 101 snags for 1,697 yards (16.8 yards-per-catch average) with 13 receiving touchdowns. And here's the damage he inflicted on three Power 5 schools over the past two years:
at Mississippi State (2017)
at Boston College (2018)
at Georgia (2018)
If Isabella didn't have the eyes and ears of scouts before the Georgia game ... he most certainly does now. Sure, UMass' defense was no match for the Bulldogs on the ground, but Isabella couldn't be covered and scorched Georgia's defensive backfield all contest while catching two deep balls late for touchdowns.
After averaging a hefty 15.7 yards per grab in 2017, he finished the 2018 season averaging 16.8 yards per reception.
And that's part of what separates Isabella from productive slot-only receiver prospects in the past. Isabella caught a variety of screens in his collegiate career, but his stat-sheet filling wasn't mainly a byproduct of schemed, high-percentage throws that went for minimal yardage.
In fact, since the start of last season, Isabella had four times as many games with an average of 15 or more yards per catch (12) than outings with 10 or fewer yards per catch (3). The nation's leader in catches and receiving yards had a higher yards-per-catch average than the current averages for both N'Keal Harry (15.0) and A.J. Brown (15.5).
You can decide for yourself why this happens, but small, twitchy slot wideouts are typically relegated to the later rounds of the NFL draft or simply don't get drafted at all.
And for a league that collectively viewed slot receivers as gadgety role players, it wasn't absurd that tiny wideouts with one position had low perceived value. But now, the slot receiver is a legitimate full-time player for every team in the league.
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According to SharpFootballStats.com, the NFL as a whole has utilized a three-receiver set on 73.0% of pass plays this season. Remarkably, that figure is up from 59% in 2017 and 62% in 2018.
We've actually started to see a shift in thinking regarding the draft with slot-only wideouts too. North Carolina's Ryan Switzer was picked in the fourth round in 2017. He averaged 12.0 yards per catch in his final two seasons for the Tar Heels. A round later, the 49ers picked 5-8, 178-pound Trent Taylor. His yards-per-catch average in his junior and senior years at Louisiana Tech was 13.1.
Isabella shouldn't get automatically hit with "quicker than fast" label. Yeah, he's a menace in the screen game. But the dude can fly. Here's him running by a Georgia cornerback for a touchdown over the weekend. Notice the gear-shifting about a third of the way into the route.
And Isabella utilizing different speeds to create separation on that play wasn't some strange, garbage-time aberration. He did the same thing on a deep crossing route earlier in the game, which made another Georgia defensive back look silly.
This is savvy NFL veteran-type stuff.
Another example of the acceleration Isabella generates with his legs came late in the first quarter against Georgia on a jet sweep inside the red zone.
He had a full head of steam, but notice how Deandre Baker, a likely first-rounder, couldn't beat Isabella to the corner, something that rarely happens when a high-caliber defensive back from an SEC school is forced to make that play against a small-school receiver.
Excellent balance is another strength of Isabella's game. Here against Boston College early in the season, he shook off a tackle after catching a shallow cross and scampered for extra yardage.
Beyond the outstanding demonstration of contact balance, this play demonstrated keen awareness, too, as the defender flew downhill to meet Isabella as he began to turn it upfield.
How about an illustration of long speed, creativity after the catch, and that contact balance?
This flea flicker against Georgia helped get Isabella open. What he did after coming down with the football led to a score.
Isabella possesses the un-coachable ability to change directions without losing much (or any) speed. And his fifth gear is no joke. Note the polish he exhibited on this long reception against Mississippi State in 2017.
From the subtle move inside to the acceleration as he got through the third level of the defense to the speed boost as he tracked the ball in the air. Amazing.
Isabella accounted for a gargantuan 47.4 percent of UMass' passing offense in 2018 and 48.1 percent of the team's receiving touchdowns. Those are massive figures. And while a prospect can't be solely evaluated on those statistics, a high market share of receiving yards and receiving touchdowns has a much stronger correlation to future NFL success than low market share numbers in college.
With UMass' season over, Isabella will start the long, arduous pre-draft process, and is a lock to be invited to the combine. It'll be fascinating to see when he's ultimately selected in the 2019 NFL Draft, and I do not think the second or third round is out of the question whatsoever. If he goes that early, it'll be a testament to his advanced, explosive game as well as a signaling that slot receivers' value is steadily on the rise in the NFL.