I have never been a scout or a NFL general manager, but I am willing to watch a ton of football. By watching about 200 snaps of each prospect, we can really get a feel for a player and then know what we are talking about a bit better. It is no exact science, but the NFL hasn't quite figured out drafting either, so we are going to do the best we can. To read more about the 2016 NFL Draft Project, click here.
Bell is a very talented and interesting player who demonstrates something we find every year when evaluating the draft. I often use three to four games of a player's most recent season to study with the 200-play treatment, but on occasion, that is not enough. Why? Because the most recent tape on the player reveals some disconcerting trends that indicate the player has changed his style for very logical, but unflattering reasons.
Every year, we find a few players -- and I suggest Vonn Bell from Ohio State is one of them -- who noticeably alter their performance because they realize that going "all-out" could get them injured and jeopardize their draft position. Only he knows if this is true, of course, but the screen often says 1,000 words. This is a very reasonable position to take when we consider all of the draft prospects over the years who did get injured in their final year and never were able to recover the status and fortune they seemed to be in line for. Unfortunately, the opposite happens quite a bit. A player plays with a passive disposition in his final year and puts all sorts of tape out where he looks allergic to contact, and many of us get a wrong impression of his playing skills and his finesse style.
In an effort to protect his draft position, he ends up playing in a way that hurts this very same status. You keep your health, but damage your reputation a bit. That is why in this rare case, I decided to look at 2014 as well. And I found a much better player.
What I liked: Bell is a very impressive center field safety who can read a quarterback and jump routes with the best in this draft. He also has very impressive ball skills, which separate him from someone like Jalen Ramsey. For all of Ramsey's brilliant characteristics, his dropped interceptions are an issue. Well, Bell catches them all. He also can run hip-to-hip when they ask him to follow a player in man coverage, even though his top-end speed is going to cause him to grab on to a speedster. He will tackle in space and he will even take on a running back, but most of his best work in the running game was only found on the 2014 tape. I will spend a bit more time on the 2015 stuff below. He is a very smooth athlete who can really move, and when he makes a decision in the secondary he is generally correct. He is the epitome of a safe safety. If Karl Joseph's aggressive instincts are too much risk for you to handle as a coaching staff, Bell's stay-at-home approach and always-err-on-the-side-of-caution might be more of what you are looking for.
What I did not like: His 2015 season produced some tape that made him look like far less of a player. The Michigan State game, in particular, appears to show a guy who would have far more interest in just about anything besides tackling a running back in the secondary. But, it wasn't just that game -- it was nearly every bit of tape from this season. He played a deep center field and all of the attributes that made him special were dialed way back. It honestly appeared that he was one of those many players far better suited for 7-on-7 summer tournaments without pads on than Sunday football in the most physical league in the world. I have decided to write it all off as either he was injured or trying to save himself for the draft. But, this season was just not very good. He is not really a "box" safety and, while you see him up there a bit, his forte is surely playing back and trying to defend the pass from his spot in center field.
Summary and potential fit with the Cowboys: I am certainly the type of football enthusiast who likes my free safety to have a bit of a physical edge to his game and bring fear into the minds of those running through his area on the field. I also like a safety who is looking to make plays and go get the ball. For several years, the Cowboys have had safety play that seemed incredibly conservative and often average-to-below average from a talent standpoint, as well.
Rumors surfaced at this time in each of the past several years that the Cowboys want to improve their safety situation through the draft, but often they go in another direction when they actually get in the "War Room." They have two safeties now in Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox who both have starting experience and competent play, but the consensus is that more dynamic play-making at either spot would be quite advantageous. Byron Jones looks to be the ultimate center field candidate, but his versatility requires that you consider a player like Bell.
My question for him would be: Was 2015 his best effort? Or once he secures his draft spot and his paycheck, can we expect more of his 2014 performances? Because a player who plays at less than 100 percent (for any reason) makes us wonder if we will always get 100 percent at the top level on a nasty day when things are going poorly and the body isn't feeling great. In other words, what I saw this past season for long stretches was not something I would be fighting hard for in the draft room to take.
But at his best, there is no question that Bell has some very attractive components that can really help a team in Round 2.