Patriots

Next Patriots slot artist to come from this year's draft class?

Next Patriots slot artist to come from this year's draft class?

INDIANAPOLIS -- The comparisons were easy to make. At times they were apt. At times, lazy and inaccurate. They were, and still are, inevitable.

If you were an undersized white receiver, you were largely lauded for your grit. You were probably called a gym rat somewhere along the line. You were likely projected to live in the slot, like Wayne Chrebet or Wes Welker.

And many times, that positional stereotype actually played out that way. Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Eric Decker all were versatile route runners but typically made their livings inside. Some of the other best receivers in the game today -- Adam Thielen, Adam Humphries and Cooper Kupp -- are as effective as they are in part because of how they threaten defenses between the numbers.

Because of Welker, Edelman and Amendola's collective history in New England, newcomers to the league who fit that profile are often dubbed by the general football-watching public as probable Patriots. 

This year it's no different.

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There were two players at the combine last week who have been boasted as potential Patriots. And based on looks alone they're similar. They fit the profile. But Clemson's Hunter Renfrow and UMass' Andy Isabella have very disparate athletic makeups.

Yes, both have good quickness and an ability to make sharp changes in direction. But one tore up ACC defenses from the interior. The other was an outside-the-numbers burner at a smaller program. 

Both are white, though, and both often get lumped into the same slot-receiver category. 

Back in 2013, Texas A&M receiver Ryan Swope clocked a blazing 4.34-second 40-yard dash. In many ways, his numbers looked like those of a true "X" receiver. Yet he was projected by some to play inside.

Isabella knows what that's like. He's encountered the same thing over the course of the last few months.

At 5-foot-9, 186 pounds, the UMass product just tied for the fastest 40-yard dash time among receivers at this year's combine (4.31 seconds). He profiles somewhat similarly to Rams deep threat Brandin Cooks (5-10, 189 with a 4.33-second 40 at the combine), yet he's seen slot projection after slot projection.

"People probably look at me differently, I think," Isabella said. "For sure."

Isabella racked up 15 catches, 219 yards and two touchdowns against SEC power Georgia. He was a state champion in Ohio in the 100-meter dash, beating last year's No. 4 overall pick corner Denzel Ward in the process. But he understands some people look at white receivers through a certain prism, so he understands the slot labels.

"It's almost like an outlier type of thing," Isabella said. "But once you get going, guys start respecting you, and they realize what you can do."

Rather than turn his nose up at the idea of playing inside -- he was primarily an outside presence for the Minutemen -- Isabella has embraced it. He knows that as a product of a relatively unheralded program in NFL circles, he's going to have to do everything he can to get evaluators to buy into his ability to contribute to their teams.

Isabella went to the Senior Bowl, scored a touchdown in the game, then made his way to Florida to work out with a light-up-the-stopwatch receiver from years ago, one whose speed was on display for a few seasons in New England: Randy Moss.

Together at the Applied Science and Performance Institute (APSI) in Tampa, Moss and Isabella have wrapped their arms around the fact that teams may look at the young wideout and try him inside. His quickness could make him an option-route killer, and so Moss wants to try to harness that. If he can pick up the nuances of playing tighter to the formation, it should make Isabella a more complete receiver.

“Randy’s definitely focusing on the inside because that’s where he thinks I’m going to start off at," Isabella said. "And he says, based on my performances and my reputation in the league, hopefully my role is going to increase."

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Isabella added: "It was tough to start off. 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.”

Even after working with Moss, seeing Welker in Indianapolis, now the Niners receivers coach, had Isabella "starstruck," he said. Isabella has better straight-line speed than Welker ever did, but Welker was, after all, one of the players who perfected the slot routes that Isabella has tried to incorporate to his game.

“He was like, ‘I really like your game,’ " Isabella said. "I was like, ‘I like your game.' "

Renfrow, meanwhile, is more polished when it comes to his interior route running, though he's not nearly as impressive when it comes to the measurables. Renfrow checked into the combine at 5-10, 184 pounds with the smallest hands in town (less than eight inches from thumb to pinky) and a 4.59 40-yard dash.

“That’s part of my charm, I guess," said Renfrow, whose 6.8-second three-cone drill was strong, and indicated that the balance and change-of-direction skills he showed on tape were legitimate.

"I like the measurables charts. I’m like zero percentile in everything. I have like the smallest hands. It’s been fun."

Clearly Renfrow doesn't bemoan the stereotypes. For years, with big performances in the College Football Playoffs, people have watched Renfrow and dubbed him the next great Patriots slot receiver. In Indy this week, it sounded like he would be more than OK with it if that particular marriage were to work out for him.

"I mean, they win,” Renfrow said. “Just being a part of a winning team would be neat. Playing with a guy like Tom Brady and under, beside Julian Edelman, who can kind of teach you the nuances of the position, would be a huge advantage for me . . .

"I love what they did in the Super Bowl. They kind of just ran four verticals, and he 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."

Whether it's a slot-only type like Renfrow in the later rounds, a potentially-versatile piece like Isabella or South Carolina's Deebo Samuel in the earlier rounds, or a free agent like Humphries, Jamison Crowder or Golden Tate, it would make sense for the Patriots to add a pass-catcher who can do some (oftentimes punishing) work inside to help preserve Edelman. 

For more on some of the free-agent slot options available, listen to our slot-specific edition of The Next Pats Podcast here

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Browns better than Patriots in 2020? Former NFL player makes bold claim

Browns better than Patriots in 2020? Former NFL player makes bold claim

The New England Patriots have spent much of the last 20 years at the summit of the NFL -- the most successful franchise of this century. Over that same time, the Cleveland Browns have been one of the league's worst teams, with only a single postseason appearance since 2000.

Could these teams begin to switch places in 2020?

Last season was supposed to be the Browns' return to the spotlight, and the playoffs. Expectations were high for quarterback Baker Mayfield, star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and an up-and-coming defense. Instead, Cleveland got off to a horrible start in 2019, losing six of their first eight games, including a Week 7 loss to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. 

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Despite all that unfolded in Cleveland last season, many experts are still high on the Browns' chances in 2020. In fact, one of them is even willing to predict the Patriots will be worse than the Browns.

“When you look at those two teams and the difference in the trajectory of what we feel they’ll be, I believe that the Browns will be a better football team than the New England Patriots this year," ESPN NFL analyst Ryan Clark said on the "Get Up" morning show earlier this week. 

"I believe that the Browns young quarterback (Baker Mayfield) will play better than the young quarterback in New England. And when you put all of these things together, that leaves Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots on the outside of the playoff picture and (Browns coach) Kevin Stefanski and the Cleveland Browns in.”

Oddsmakers don't agree with Clark. 

The Browns are underdogs to reach the playoffs with +137 odds at the DraftKings Sportsbook, while the Patriots are expected to make the postseason at -177 odds.

It's also hard to trust the Browns until they show the mental toughness required to play football into January. Bad penalties, turnovers, poor coaching and other avoidable mistakes have plagued the Browns for many years, and last season was no different.

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Another factor working against the Browns is their division. The AFC North is not a joke.

The reigning division champion Baltimore Ravens went 14-2 last year and should again be a top Super Bowl contender. The Pittsburgh Steelers have been a playoff team for much of the last two decades, and they'll be aided by the healthy return of veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who missed most of 2019 due to injury. The Cincinnati Bengals are the worst team in the division, but selecting Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow with the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft has renewed hope in Cincy.

It's not inconceivable for the Browns to be better than the Patriots in 2020. The Patriots will have plenty of challenges, too, most notably adjusting to a new starting quarterback. New England's schedule also is among the toughest in the league, and the defense lost several key players in free agency.

Still, it's hard to bet against a Belichick team, especially when the other team in the conversation is the Browns. The smart money in this debate is with the Patriots.

Patriots' Stephon Gilmore hard at work in new offseason training video

Patriots' Stephon Gilmore hard at work in new offseason training video

NFL teams have not been able to conduct normal offseason workouts, rookie camps and other activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but players are still finding ways to stay in shape and prepare for the 2020 season.

That includes New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who recently worked out with former NFL defensive back Dre Bly, who's currently the cornerbacks coach for the University of North Carolina football team.

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Check out some footage of Gilmore's workout in the tweet below:

Gilmore arguably is the Patriots' best player following quarterback Tom Brady's departure in free agency. In Pro Football Focus' recent ranking of the top 50 players gonig into the 2020 season, Gilmore was the only Patriot to make the list.

The veteran cornerback is coming off back-to-back seasons of first team All-Pro selections, and in February he was named the AP Defensive Player of the Year Award winner for the 2019 campaign.

The Patriots saw a lot of veteran players from their defense leave as free agents this offseason. Luckily for New England, its secondary remains one of the best groups in the league, and Gilmore's presence as the sport's premier shutdown cornerback is the primary reason for that.