Cardinals breakout candidates: WR Andy Isabella could be game-changer
Heading into the Arizona Cardinals’ expected start of training camp on July 28, let’s take a peek at the team’s potential breakout candidates — the guys who could come out of nowhere to give the team something surprising as we project their 2020 season.
The list, which we’re rolling out in no particular order, will include players yet to solidify themselves as NFL starters. While that is mostly made up of second-year pros, there are older vets included. We won’t touch on rookies because, well, they’ve yet to set expectations for themselves as pros.
The breakout never came during Andy Isabella’s rookie season.
Sure, there was one big play, an 88-yard catch-and-run touchdown that saw Isabella’s speed cover 122 total yards against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 8.
The 2019 second-round NFL Draft pick didn’t stand out to the naked eye beyond that, but there were glimmers of what his role could become in coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense. Even forgetting that he was the main return piece in the Josh Rosen trade with the Miami Dolphins, his specific role in a receiver room that has no clear No. 4 is a big reason why he’s such a intriguing player to watch as camp begins.
Arizona’s Week 6 win over the Atlanta Falcons showed just that, even though Isabella played 12 snaps on offense with zero targets.
Two explosive plays were made possible because Isabella simply existed.
Once, he drew coverage way down the field for a delayed dump-off to Cardinals running back David Johnson, who had Iowa-sized fields of running room because of it.
At another point, Isabella went across the field in a pre-snap motion, literally drawing four defenders into the right flat as Arizona tight end Maxx Williams snuck to the vacated left side of the field. He rumbled for a score.
Does it matter that the Falcons were a dumpster fire on defense last year? Well, sure.
But whether it was the scouting report noting Isabella’s speed that scared those defenders or previous play-calls that set-up Atlanta’s defense, it matters that Isabella can do what no other Cardinal can. This:
With DeAndre Hopkins in tow and Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk locked in as inside receivers, Isabella could be a great complementary vertical stretcher.
Defenses will try to double Hopkins, potentially putting Isabella in one-on-one scenarios he could win with his flat speed. The deep threat will open windows on intermediate routes.
Why, then, did Isabella earn so few snaps as a rookie? Why do high hopes remain for a guy who had nine catches (13 targets) for 189 yards, plus 15 more yards on four rushing attempts?
Damiere Byrd, when healthy, earned the third-most snaps and played that role as the speedster. Kingsbury suggested mid-year that moving Isabella between slot and outside receiver might have slowed his development. The Cardinals locked Isabella in as an outside guy once that was realized, but the rookie never played more than 39% of a game’s snaps, and those allotments waned late in the regular season for whatever reason.
Free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft might’ve hinted that Arizona was treating its three rookie wideouts with some tough love last year. General manager Steve Keim didn’t add to the receiver room after swinging the Hopkins blockbuster, and the team prioritized the defensive side of the ball in the draft, passing on what was considered one of the deepest receiver classes in some time.
“We liked a lot of receivers in the draft. We also like the guys we took last year,” Kingsbury said in May. “We like how they progressed. It was tough getting on the field ’cause we had some guys playing really well (in front of them), but we’re excited to see how they take that next step in year two. I would say that definitely had a lot to do with how the draft went.”
Young vets in Byrd and Pharoh Cooper walked in free agency, not only opening opportunities in the receiver room but in the return game, too.
Kingsbury indeed sees Isabella differently.
While then-rookie KeeSean Johnson and Trent Sherfield were more like plug-and-play options at receiver, it was Isabella who found himself in carefully-crafted offensive packages. Regardless of his production, he impacted the game.
The Cardinals just hope he can impact it more often by earning more playing time in 2020.