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Cardinals Misfiring on Isabella

Arizona Cardinals v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - NOVEMBER 29: Andy Isabella #17 of the Arizona Cardinals runs with the ball after catching a pass against the New England Patriots during the first quarter of the game at Gillette Stadium on November 29, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

You might be surprised to hear this—-but—-Andy Isabella could be and should be the #2 WR in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense.

“Hey man, you’re crazy, the dude was a healthy scratch last week. He’s a total bust.”

“Andy Isabella has no business being on an NFL roster, let alone playing December football in the NFL.”

Many are now scoffing at Steve Keim and Michael Bidwill for listening to Kliff Kingsbury push for the selection of Andy Isabella with the #62 pick of the 2019 NFL Draft.

At the time, Kliff Kingsbury had every intention of designing his Air Raid offense around his affinity for ‘10 personnel”—-as in spreading the field with 4 WR sets.

Kingsbury saw how woefully slow the Cardinals WRs were in 2018. Keim and Kingsbury had already signed a tall, speedy UFA WR in Kevin White, who thrived so well in West Virginia’s Air Raid that he was taken with the #7 pick of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Bears. At 6’3” 215 he crushed the 2015 Combine, running a blistering 4.35 40, a 6.92 3 cone while boasting a 36 1/2” vertical.

Having White already on board may have created less of an urgency to select a tall X WR like D.K. Metcalf, whose medical flags (neck) were causing him to slide.

In retrospect, if D.K. Metcalf remains healthy, he should have been every team's pick in the middle to late 1st and throughout the 2nd round.

Due to injuries and inconsistencies, White struggled with the Bears—-however, Kingsbury had a good reason to believe that White could revert back to his college form by playing in his old college system. Alas, White would never make it out of training camp with the Cardinals, while Metcalf was poised and ready to hit the NFL by storm..

When the Cardinals selected Andy isabella with the #62 pick, Kliff Kingsbury was literally jumping for joy.

What Kingsbury did not know at that time was how his offense was gong to be influenced by two key assistant coaches: OLC Sean Kugler and WRC Jerry Sullivan.

As we know, three weeks into the 2019 season, the Cardinals’ offensive lineman and Kugler pleaded with Kingsbury to make a commitment to using 12 personnel (2 TEs) in order to establish a bona fide rushing attack.

When Jerry Sullivan was added to the coaching staff, first as a training camp adviser and then as a full-time assistant, Sullivan went fast to work on trying to improve the Cardinals WRs’ route running and triangle catching techniques. From the get-go, Kevin White struggled—-as did Andy isabella and Hakeem Butler—-while KeeSean Johnson was the quickest to gain Sullivan’s favor because of Johnson’s smooth and technically sound route running.

But—-in reality—-the only Cardinals’ WRs who were passing the rigorous WR tests in training camp were Larry Fitzgerald and Damiere Byrd. Things got so murky behind those two that Steve Keim signed Michael Crabtree in the desperate hope that he could compliment Fitz and Byrd. Alas, Crabtree lasted what, three weeks?

Jerry Sullivan has a keen eye for WR talent. He worked with Fitz at a time when Fitz needed to take his game to a higher level. By then, Fitz was already well ahead of the game. He wasn’t the starry-eyed 20 year old who showed up for his first practice with the Cardinals in 2004.

It was reported that heading into this past year’s NFL Draft, amidst early speculation that the Cardinals might be keen on selecting WR CeeDee Lamb or WR Jerry Jeudy with their #8 pick, Jerry Sullivan’s favorite WR in the draft was Justin Jefferson, Joe Burrow’s #1 WR at LSU. Sullivan had worked first-hand with Jefferson the year prior while assisting at LSU.

Today, Sullivan looks like a genius for believing that Justin Jefferson was the best WR in the 2020 NFL Draft. Jefferson is 7th in the NFL in receiving with 65 catches for 1,078 yards (16.6) and 7 TDs, while the next closest rookie is CeeDee Lamb (Cowboys) with 61 catches for 742 yards (12.2 ave.) and 4 TDs.

The point is—-it may have been very helpful for Kliff Kingsbury to have had the chance to consult with Jerry Sullivan prior to the 2019 draft. But, Sullivan was not on board as of yet.

If and when the Cardinals draft a WR again, it would be wise for Sullivan to provide his input.

As of right now, however, none ofthe Cardinals’ WRs ,other than DeAndre Hopkins, are turning in impressively consistent performances. Fitz is basically being used as a buttonhook zone busting TE, while Christian Kirk flashes one game and is barely visible the next—-even dropping a slant pass TD thrown perfectly on the money versus the Patriots during a gut-wrenching 3 point loss.

The fact that both Andy Isabella and KeeSean Johnson are still cameo performers in the offense, in an offense now more heavily committed to 12 personnel and the running game, is disappointing.

But—-in my opinion—-the Cardinals have two outstanding talents in Isabella and Johnson. I will save my thoughts on KeeSean for another day, but today my focus is on Andy.

The main reason why I believe that Andy Isabella should be the Cardinals #2 WR at this point is that he can do what none of the other Cardinals’ WRs can do—-he can consistently get behind the defense with his 4.31 speed—-and he is the quickest WR on the team in gaining separation out of his breaks. He can win on every route of the route tree—-short, intermediate and long.

The problem really isn’t Isabella—-it’s that Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray aren’t targeting him enough and recently, Murray, more often than not, has been too late on his passes to the point where the defensive backs can recover to nullify the separation that Isabella gains..

Another part of the late throw problem is that it is the result of Isabella being the #2 or #3 option on the play.

If the Cardinals want to find out just how productive and dynamic Andy isabella can be—-they need to run plays where he is the #1 option and where Kyler is throwing to Andy just as Andy is making his breaks. For example, had Kyler thrown the ball on time in the 28-21 loss to the Seahawks late in the game when Isabella was initially wide open on a deep sideline pass, the Cardinals very likely would have the had the ball 1st and goal at the Seahawks’ 4 yard line, with a good chance to tie the game. Instead, the throw was late to the point where two defenders converged on Isabella as the ball arrived (one of them committing a PI that was hard to for the refs to see in real time).

Some cynics are saying, “yeah but Isabella is weak and he can't catch the ball.” That is a total myth. Here was my response to Steven O’Connell on Twitter who suggested that the Cardinals cut him::

Andy isabella isn’t lost—-he’s not getting the ball when he’s open.

Not only is isabella the best blocker at WR—-is there any doubt that he would have scored versus the Giants on the flip jet sweep where Christian Kirk was hesitant and got tackled on the 1 yard line? The last time Isabella ran that exact play he took it 19 yards on the first play versus the Patriots (pictured above).

As for Isabella’s 2 drops in 2 seasons—-sure by now everyone can agree that D.K. Metcalf should have never been on the board late in the second round—-but did you know that Metcalf has 14 drops thus far in his career—-7 last year and 7 this year—-for a drop rate of 6.8%.

Earlier in the season, Kyler was starting to throw to Andy in rhythm and on time—-and this is what it looked like:

What I love about these plays is that Andy is winning from the slot—-his two TDs versus the Lions were on a perfectly timed corner route and a bang-bang quick out—-both from the slot. If the Cardinals can consistently win from the slot, with Hopkins on the other side—-think of how dynamic the passing game could be.

Since these early game where Andy was producing, most of the passes thrown his way have been misfires. Yes, Andy botched a first down catch versus the Dolphins when he thought he could make a move for chunk yards by pivoting off a backward step—-a situational mistake that quite frankly he likely will never make again. Some fans were actually blaming Kyler’s pick 6 to Troy Hill of the Rams on Andy. Andy was initially open on his out pass break, but, by the time the pass arrived Andy had already reached the sideline and was double teamed.

With Andy’s speed, how many NFL CBs can cover him on a deep crossing route? How often—-and be honest—-have you seen a Cardinals’ WR hit this type of a home run?

Picking Andy isabella with #62 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft was a superb selection for the Cardinals because of isabella’s home run speed and potential for putting up the kind of gaudy numbers that he did at UMass—-just the same while often being double an triple teamed and playing with average college QBs, none of whom were pro prospects.

But, what Mark and Spencer Whipple (HC and OC at UMass then) were smart enough to do, was get their average QBs to throw to Andy right on his breaks. When you watch his UMass highlights—-look at how often the passes to him are delivered on time—-and many of the deep ones are thrown early enough and long enough to where Andy doesn’t have to slow down too much to have to wait on the football.

If the Cardinals make a concerted effort to throw the ball on time to Andy the way the coaches did at UMass, then he would be just the kind of speed, RAC WR the Cardinals need opposite DeAndre Hopkins.

This Cardinals’ offense needs a speed element in order to maximize its potential in the passing game. Andy Isabella brings that element, unlike any other Cardinals’ WR. Therefore, activate him, line him up in the slot, key on him 6-7 times a game and hit him the split second he comes off his breaks.

Isabella (in Italiano) = is-a-good