Cardinals loved work ethic, speed of receiver Andy Isabella
General manager Steve Keim has emphasized recent tweaks in the “Cardinal filter,” the final weeding out process used to finalize the team’s big board of draftable players. In recent years, prospects’ character and football passion have carried more weight in Arizona’s evaluations.
UMass receiver Andy Isabella, who became the 62nd overall pick on Friday, might be the poster boy for that filter.
For sure, Isabella’s 4.31-yard time in the 40-yard dash opened eyes at the combine. He also led the NCAA with 1,698 receiving yards last season and tied for the fifth most receiving touchdowns (13) in 2018.
Yet the juxtaposition of the 5-foot-9 Isabella going two picks ahead of D.K. Metcalf, a Hercules-looking receiver with measurables but shrug-worthy production at an SEC school, highlighted Arizona’s priorities well. The Cardinals fell in love with Isabella’s work ethic as much as his numbers.
“He bought a jugs machine three weeks ago just so he could get ready, not for the draft, but for wherever he went,” former UMass head coach Mark Whipple told Doug & Wolf on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.
“That’s just the kind of kid he is. One of the five hardest workers I’ve ever coached, and that’s at any level.”
Whipple, who is now the offensive coordinator at Pitt, has experience as an NFL assistant coach with the Steelers (2004-06), Eagles (2008) and Browns (2011-12). His connections in Cleveland led him to discovering Isabella, ultimately offering him a scholarship when few others would.
Out of high school, Isabella was a running back and more well-known for his accolades on the track in Ohio.
In 2015, Isabella won the state 100-meter dash finals, beating 2018 No. 4 overall pick Denzel Ward, who is now a cornerback for the Browns.
Four years later, the Cardinals got turned on to Isabella because of a few UMass connections on staff. Cardinals college scouting coordinator Ryan Gold had served as UMass assistant line coach from 2011-13, and recently-hired offensive quality control assistant Spencer Whipple, Mark’s son, was previously the passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Minutemen.
The highlight tape backs up Isabella’s speed. And he used it well.
Against Liberty last year, he made nine catches for 303 yards. Facing more challenging competition, Isabella put up 191 yards on 14 catches against South Florida and 219 yards on 15 receptions against Georgia last season.
How did that work ethic show up?
Mark Whipple remembers a Sunday when snow dumped about 10 inches on the UMass campus. In the office overlooking the field, he noticed somebody had shoveled 40 yards worth of snow.
“I look out there and it’s Andy with a shovel and a hat on and everything else, he takes it off and he starts running,” Whipple said. “That’s just the way he is. He’s not going to miss a workout. He didn’t miss a game in four years (after earning a role as a freshman). He’s a tough, tough kid.”
The Cardinals expect Isabella to challenge for an immediate role.
In the pre-draft process, Isabella got the sense Arizona wants to use him in the slot, where many receivers on the shorter end of the height spectrum have made their name. But his speed and ability as an outside receiver could give head coach Kliff Kingsbury the ability to move him around just as Arizona did with then-rookie Christian Kirk in 2018.
Being a lightly-recruited prospect playing in college near the New England Patriots — and expected to play in a similar spread system with the Cardinals — leads to easy stereotypes and comparisons. It’s a compliment to Isabella, yet the Cardinals think he can bring something unique to the table.
“It’s funny because when I first watched him, I walked down to Kliff’s office, and if there’s any school that has great white slot receivers, it’s Texas Tech,” Keim joked. “And I said, ‘I went back in the scouting system and I tried to look up all your buddies, whether it was (Wes) Welker, (Danny) Amendola and all those guys, they have tremendous quickness but all those guys ran in the 4.6s.
“This guy ran 4.3 and has that type of quickness.”