Next Patriots slot artist to come from this year's draft class?


INDIANAPOLIS -- The comparisons were easy to make. At times they were apt. At times, lazy and inaccurate. They were, and still are, inevitable.

If you were an undersized white receiver, you were largely lauded for your grit. You were probably called a gym rat somewhere along the line. You were likely projected to live in the slot, like Wayne Chrebet or Wes Welker.

And many times, that positional stereotype actually played out that way. Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Eric Decker all were versatile route runners but typically made their livings inside. Some of the other best receivers in the game today -- Adam Thielen, Adam Humphries and Cooper Kupp -- are as effective as they are in part because of how they threaten defenses between the numbers.

Because of Welker, Edelman and Amendola's collective history in New England, newcomers to the league who fit that profile are often dubbed by the general football-watching public as probable Patriots. 

This year it's no different.


There were two players at the combine last week who have been boasted as potential Patriots. And based on looks alone they're similar. They fit the profile. But Clemson's Hunter Renfrow and UMass' Andy Isabella have very disparate athletic makeups.

Yes, both have good quickness and an ability to make sharp changes in direction. But one tore up ACC defenses from the interior. The other was an outside-the-numbers burner at a smaller program. 

Both are white, though, and both often get lumped into the same slot-receiver category. 

Back in 2013, Texas A&M receiver Ryan Swope clocked a blazing 4.34-second 40-yard dash. In many ways, his numbers looked like those of a true "X" receiver. Yet he was projected by some to play inside.

Isabella knows what that's like. He's encountered the same thing over the course of the last few months.

At 5-foot-9, 186 pounds, the UMass product just tied for the fastest 40-yard dash time among receivers at this year's combine (4.31 seconds). He profiles somewhat similarly to Rams deep threat Brandin Cooks (5-10, 189 with a 4.33-second 40 at the combine), yet he's seen slot projection after slot projection.

"People probably look at me differently, I think," Isabella said. "For sure."

Isabella racked up 15 catches, 219 yards and two touchdowns against SEC power Georgia. He was a state champion in Ohio in the 100-meter dash, beating last year's No. 4 overall pick corner Denzel Ward in the process. But he understands some people look at white receivers through a certain prism, so he understands the slot labels.

"It's almost like an outlier type of thing," Isabella said. "But once you get going, guys start respecting you, and they realize what you can do."

Rather than turn his nose up at the idea of playing inside -- he was primarily an outside presence for the Minutemen -- Isabella has embraced it. He knows that as a product of a relatively unheralded program in NFL circles, he's going to have to do everything he can to get evaluators to buy into his ability to contribute to their teams.

Isabella went to the Senior Bowl, scored a touchdown in the game, then made his way to Florida to work out with a light-up-the-stopwatch receiver from years ago, one whose speed was on display for a few seasons in New England: Randy Moss.

Together at the Applied Science and Performance Institute (APSI) in Tampa, Moss and Isabella have wrapped their arms around the fact that teams may look at the young wideout and try him inside. His quickness could make him an option-route killer, and so Moss wants to try to harness that. If he can pick up the nuances of playing tighter to the formation, it should make Isabella a more complete receiver.

“Randy’s definitely focusing on the inside because that’s where he thinks I’m going to start off at," Isabella said. "And he says, based on my performances and my reputation in the league, hopefully my role is going to increase."


Isabella added: "It was tough to start off. It was different because I’m used to opening up and running downfield. Now you had to be precise in the slot and get your head around quicker and be on time with the quarterback. I feel like I picked it up and had a good Senior Bowl game.”

Even after working with Moss, seeing Welker in Indianapolis, now the Niners receivers coach, had Isabella "starstruck," he said. Isabella has better straight-line speed than Welker ever did, but Welker was, after all, one of the players who perfected the slot routes that Isabella has tried to incorporate to his game.

“He was like, ‘I really like your game,’ " Isabella said. "I was like, ‘I like your game.' "

Renfrow, meanwhile, is more polished when it comes to his interior route running, though he's not nearly as impressive when it comes to the measurables. Renfrow checked into the combine at 5-10, 184 pounds with the smallest hands in town (less than eight inches from thumb to pinky) and a 4.59 40-yard dash.

“That’s part of my charm, I guess," said Renfrow, whose 6.8-second three-cone drill was strong, and indicated that the balance and change-of-direction skills he showed on tape were legitimate.

"I like the measurables charts. I’m like zero percentile in everything. I have like the smallest hands. It’s been fun."

Clearly Renfrow doesn't bemoan the stereotypes. For years, with big performances in the College Football Playoffs, people have watched Renfrow and dubbed him the next great Patriots slot receiver. In Indy this week, it sounded like he would be more than OK with it if that particular marriage were to work out for him.

"I mean, they win,” Renfrow said. “Just being a part of a winning team would be neat. Playing with a guy like Tom Brady and under, beside Julian Edelman, who can kind of teach you the nuances of the position, would be a huge advantage for me . . .

"I love what they did in the Super Bowl. They kind of just ran four verticals, and he just found a way to get open. He really didn’t have a route. He just kind of found open space. I love that, and that’s kind of the backyard football mentality that it takes to be successful."

Whether it's a slot-only type like Renfrow in the later rounds, a potentially-versatile piece like Isabella or South Carolina's Deebo Samuel in the earlier rounds, or a free agent like Humphries, Jamison Crowder or Golden Tate, it would make sense for the Patriots to add a pass-catcher who can do some (oftentimes punishing) work inside to help preserve Edelman. 

For more on some of the free-agent slot options available, listen to our slot-specific edition of The Next Pats Podcast here

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