The Arizona Cardinals selected Andy Isabella No. 62 overall in the 2019 NFL draft. The UMass star was the eighth wide receiver off the board in the reality event, and yet he’s only the No. 10 WR in rookie drafts. Still, that’s hardly the kind of gap to get worked up over unless there’s something else going on. What is it about the diminutive speedster that makes him so special?
I wrote quite a bit about Isabella in breaking down Round 1 and Round 2 of the recent Faked Goods rookie draft. Rich Hribar selected him at 1.09 in my conference, only slightly below our staff rankings, and I assumed his ADP would start moving in that direction. But when the new Cardinal was still on the board at No. 19 overall during my HyperActive draft yesterday, I realized that Isabella’s ostensible ADP isn’t wrong. He really is going this late even in competitive formats.
Isabella is falling to No. 17 overall in rookie drafts, and yet he currently sits at No. 3 in our rookie rankings.1 We’re often out of the mainstream here at RotoViz,2 but I can’t remember a time when you could get one of our top-five rookies in the middle of the second round.
Is this justified? Or are we absolutely crazy?
Isabella led the NCAA with 1,698 receiving yards last year, but these numbers look even better when we apply some advanced filters. The Box Score Scout allows us to look at his market share numbers and see his closest comps simultaneously.
Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks are exciting comps, Tyler Lockett is now poised to be the No. 1 receiver in Seattle, and further down the list we find one of the greatest rookie receivers ever in Odell Beckham. Beckham’s expectation was higher due to draft slot, but you can see that he’s more similar from a production perspective than busts like Phillip Dorsett and John Ross.
Isabella’s final yardage market share was better than anyone on the list at 47%, and it pulled his career numbers up into rarified air as well. Receivers with a career market share above 29% and a final year market share above 42% are wildly successful in transitioning to the NFL, and the same can be said for receivers who don’t hit that final year threshold but gain more than 16 yards per reception. Isabella manages both.
His ridiculous production profile continues to jump out when we look at Travis May’s Adjusted Production Index which includes Dominator Rating as well as yards and touchdowns per team attempt. Isabella sports a 95th percentile API. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside ranks No. 2 in the class with an 83rd percentile API. Meanwhile, four of the WRs selected ahead of Isabella in rookie drafts come in with below average APIs.3
The Athleticism and Intangibles
The Cardinals love Isabella’s pure track speed, but they may be at least as intrigued by his football character. Former UMass head coach Mark Whipple raves about him.
“He bought a jugs machine three weeks ago just so he could get ready, not for the draft, but for wherever he went. 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.”4
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. That’s just the way he is. He’s not going to miss a workout. He didn’t miss a game in four years. He’s a tough, tough kid.
That kind of work ethic doesn’t necessarily matter if you’re not athletic enough to stay with NFL players, but Isabella’s pure speed puts him in a unique category of vertical scorers. Guys like John Brown and the aforementioned Fuller litter his Combine Explorer comps.
Usually when you have a player with this much production and this much speed, you find him, well, where we have him in our staff rankings.
Outside of N’Keal Harry and Josh Jacobs, there’s plenty of disagreement on the rest of the top prospects, exactly as you’d expect in a draft that’s both weak and flat through the first round. I discuss how to exploit this in 5 Methods for Attacking Your Rookie Draft, but the most straightforward plan might be to just wait and select Isabella.
None of our rankers had Isabella as their No. 3 prospect or their No. 2 wide receiver, but no one had him worse than the No. 6 overall. That allowed him to crawl over A.J. Brown and Mecole Hardman in the composite. It also put him ahead of early draft picks at RB like Miles Sanders and David Montgomery.
Buying Into the Cardinals Offense
Excitement is building in the desert. We don’t yet know if Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid will be the next evolution in professional football or a spectacular fireball that burns itself out in disgrace. Even a failed experiment could lead to short-term results. Jordan Matthews finished as the WR25 and WR16 over his first two years in Chip Kelly’s system before injuries and Kelly’s dismissal conspired to wreck his career.
If you missed on Christian Kirk a year ago and now find your trade offers rebuffed by true believers, Isabella represents an opportunity to buy in.
Isabella holds the edge in a number of categories, but his limited warts are areas where Kirk shines. The Texas A&M star was an early breakout and an early declare, two areas that matter a great deal in understanding how receiver production translates to the NFL.
Kirk sits at No. 77 in startup ADP and No. 53 overall in our rankings. The second-year breakout candidate is a terrific value in his own right, but as the Arizona scheme offense evolves, this is the perfect time to balance your portfolio with the less expensive Isabella.
I’ll leave you with a look at Isabella versus the four rookie WRs currently going ahead of him despite below-average APIs.
After watching the Chiefs torch the NFL with Tyreek Hill last season, GMs prioritized speed in this draft. Parris Campbell, D.K. Metcalf, and Mecole Hardman all ran in the low 4.3s, and Deebo Samuel is a plus athlete himself. Hardman, Metcalf, and Campbell also landed in plum situations, and Metcalf looks poised to benefit from the Doug Baldwin news.
But Isabella possesses something the other speedsters don’t. Production. And there’s nothing scarier than using your limited rookie picks on players who struggled in college. Draft position helps create short-term opportunity for premium selections, but it doesn’t suddenly change their football ability. Dynasty owners are reaching for these second-round reality picks, perhaps forgetting how big a risk a player can be even when selected in the top 10. The Rams found that out with Tavon Austin, and more recently Cincinnati has gotten almost nothing from their attempted Hill clone in John Ross.5
Instead of reaching at the end of the first round or early in the second, trade down and target Isabella. And if you trade down and get burned, I’ve got 5 High-Upside Flyers to Draft Late.
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- I’ll explain why that slightly overstates our enthusiasm when I go into more detail on the rankings at the end. (back)
- Often in league-winning fashion like when we recommended Le’Veon Bell, DeAndre Hopkins, Davante Adams, Allen Robinson, David Johnson, and Stefon Diggs well above ADP in their rookie drafts, and then occasionally in more embarrassing circumstances. . . (back)
- And that’s not among elite prospects but the entire prospect pool stretching back to 2005. (back)
- Doug & Wolf on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station. (back)
- Austin was more productive than the group going ahead of Isabella, and Ross was much faster, a true Hill-level blazer. (back)