INDIANAPOLIS – The Patriots and slot receivers have been inextricably linked since the days of Troy Brown. The tradition that Brown established has carried through Deion Branch, Wes Welker, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, and based on some comments at the Combine this week, it looks like Bill Belichick might have a chance to add to that impressive list.
Clemson's Hunter Renfrow and UMass product Andy Isabella are very different receivers, but both could find themselves working out of the slot in the near future.
Renfrow is a player many Patriots fans are familiar with thanks to the Tigers strong play in recent years. Renfrow and his teammates have won two of the last three national titles, the first coming as a result of his touchdown catch to beat Alabama in the waning seconds when he was a sophomore.
The 5-10, 184-pound Renfrow has a lot of the qualities that the Patriots covet out of the slot. So much so that he once signed an autograph and included the words "future Patriot" with it.
"They win," Renfrow said when asked about the Patriots. "I'll go wherever they pay me to go, but the Patriots would be cool. Playing with a guy like Tom Brady, that would be incredible. He's one of the greatest players ever to play the game. That would be special. Playing with a guy like Tom Brady and under and beside a guy like Julian Edelman, who can kind of teach you the nuances of the position, I think would be a big advantage for me."
Renfrow was particularly respectful of Edelman, who he called a "trailblazer" at the position. While he had yet to chat with the Patriots in Indy, he did meet with the team at the Senior Bowl in January.
"I love what they did in the Super Bowl," Renfrow said. "They kind of just ran four verticals, and [Edelman] 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."
Renfrow does not look like an imposing presence in person – he joked that he was "like zero percentile in everything on the measurables chart" – but on the field his production has been consistent. Playing with the likes of Deshaun Watson, Kelly Bryant and most recently Trevor Lawrence, Renfrow racked up 186 catches for 2,133 yards and 15 touchdowns at Clemson.
"The greatest threat you have as a receiver is your ability to run by a guy," said Renfrow, who NFLDraftScout.com has labeled as a 4-5-round pick. "So if I'm running a route against you, if I can get you to turn your hips and go deep, then I can come back, I can drag by, I can come back to the quarterback. So that ability to make those cuts. If you can create space, then you can be able to catch the ball in space and be able to go make yards after the catch."
Isabella is close in stature to Renfrow at 5-9, 186 pounds, but that's where the similarities end. Unlike Renfrow, Isabella can fly – so much so that many thought he would run the fastest 40 time at the Combine. As a high school track star in Ohio, he bested Browns corner Denzel Ward in the 100, and Ward posted a 4.32 40 at last year's Combine.
At the Senior Bowl, Isabella caught seven passes for 74 yards and he spoke about his potential to post a 4.3 40 in Indy. When he spoke a Friday, a day before he was set to run, Isabella wouldn't make any predictions, saying only that it would be "fast."
He has spent much of his pre-draft time working with Randy Moss, who immediately told Isabella that he reminded him of Welker.
"I think it was the second day we practiced, he said I was just as small as Wes," Isabella said with a smile.
Isabella got the chance to meet Welker when he sat with the 49ers new receivers coach earlier this week.
"He was like, 'I really like your game.' I was like, 'I like your game,'" Isabella said with a laugh, adding that he had to "pinch himself" while feeling "starstruck."
Despite all the talk about Welker, the truth is his style is much different. Isabella is a burner, and he talked about liking Golden Tate and his ability to break tackles after the catch, and Brandin Cooks, whose high-end speed can take the top of the defense.
Moss has been working with Isabella inside, believing his protégé will start in the slot rather than on the outside due to his size.
"It was tough to start off," he said of his work inside. "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."
Isabella had a monster senior season for the Minutemen, catching 102 passes for 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns. He really opened some eyes in his final game, a blowout loss at Georgia, when he caught 15 passes for 219 yards and a pair of touchdowns despite constant double teams.
"We got beat up pretty bad so it was tough, but it was great after the game hearing from all the Georgia guys congratulating me [on a good game]," Isabella said.
Isabella could be another mid-round option, or perhaps higher depending on his time. The Patriots drafted Miami's Braxton Berrios last spring but he wound up on injured reserve. Given the free agent status of Cordarrelle Patterson, Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett, wide receiver is a clear area of need. Perhaps Renfrow or Isabella could help fill the void.