Over the course of the weeks ahead, we will take a look at each of Ohio State's potential draft selections, and find out not only what they achieved at Ohio State (spoiler: a lot), but also what we can expect them to achieve at the next level (spoiler: a lot more). Now, the safety that not only has the Odell Beckham Jr. haircut, but also most of the swag that goes along with it, Vonn Bell.
A lot of times the term "blue chip recruit" is used rather loosely. Not that most four and five star recruits don't deserve this label, but it's more disheartening for a "blue chip recruit" to not pan out than it is for just another guy. One recruiting term that is not used loosely the term "crown jewel". This term signals a player is so good, that they are more or less the alpha-dog of the recruiting class. Most recently this label has been applied to incoming Ohio State defense lineman Nick Bosa. The jury on little Bosa is still out, but it appears we can now safely say there was no mistake made when five-star Vonn Bell was dubbed the "crown jewel" of Ohio State's now legendary 2013 recruiting class.
"Vonn, if you go to Alabama you're going to be seeing me anyway. You might as well ride with us to the game." - Urban Meyer
With these magical words, Meyer had his crown jewel. Safeties with both tackling and playmaking ability can be hard to come by, but Meyer found himself one in the 5'11 200 lb Rossville, Georgia safety. Possibly an even bigger deal than signing Bell was the fact the Meyer had gone to SEC territory to do so. Remember, 2013 was a time when the idea that a Big Ten program could athletically match up with a SEC program was laughed at. The signing of Bell was the first of many steps in erasing this ugly image.
However, as great as Bell's signing was for Ohio State, Bell's true impact wouldn't be seen on the field until nearly the following January. Meyer has been notorious at hyping Freshman recruits who are supposedly ready to play right away, but Bell fell through the cracks like so many others and didn't receive his first start until the that season's Orange Bowl. While Freshman shouldn't just be given starting spots by any means, to leave a five star safety on the bench as your head coach himself states that your pass defense is "very alarming" is head scratching to say the least. To say the most on this matter, some (most notably Bell himself) have implied that Bell getting an earlier opportunity could have changed the tide of the ill-fated 2013 Big Ten Championship against Michigan State.
Whether or not that is the case is irrelevant, but what is relevant was Bell's impact on the field once he got his chance. Starting for the first time against Clemson in the 2013 Orange Bowl, Bell grabbed the imagination of Buckeyes' nation with just one hand.
While Bell alone wasn't enough to stop Sammy Watkins or Martavis Bryant that day, Bell set the tone for a career that was defined by pure playmaking ability.
"I run all the way down to the end zone (after intercepting a pass in practice). Coach Meyer gets mad at me and tells me to come back. It's all natural. It's just being a playmaker." - Vonn Bell
To be known as a playmaker takes a lot of work. Anyone can look great for a play here and there, but to call yourself a playmaker requires consistent ability and performance on the field to back up the talk. Locked in as Ohio State's starting safety entering the 2014 season, it's safe to say Bell backed up the talk.
Bell was everywhere in 2014. While not known as a huge hitter, Bell repeatedly was able to make plays in the box as a surefire run defender. This was demonstrated by his 91 tackles on the season, ranking him second among the Silver Bullets. But the reason Bell was feared by quarterbacks across the nation wasn't because of his tackling ability, it was because of his natural playmaking ability.
Tied for ninth in the NCAA with six interceptions on the year, none were bigger than his last. In the College Football Semifinal against Alabama, fresh off an absolutely brutal punt that gave Bama the ball inside Ohio State's 25, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin dialed up a nifty corner route to 2016 National Championship hero O.J Howard. How nifty was this corner route? As the video below shows, Kiffin signaled touchdown well before the ball left quarterback Blake Sims' hand. Despite Kiffin's strong history of being right in times like this, here Kiffin forgot this pass was about the enter Bell's zone, which is bad news for any football that has hopes of being completed.
Thanks to Bell's game changing interception, Ohio State went on to upset Alabama and later Oregon to win the 2014-2015 National Championship. The reemergence of a strong pass defense is a big reason why, and Bell was the icing on the cake of said pass defense.
Despite so much hype going into Bell's 2015 junior year campaign, Bell came through. The leader of the country's number six pass defense in terms of opponent passing efficiency, Bell tacked on 65 tackles, two interceptions, and two defensive touchdowns to his already impressive Ohio State resume. As a cherry on top of such a great career, Bell was named a first team All-American by CBSsports.com. This honor gives Bell a tree to plant in Ohio State's Buckeye Grove, and after taking a look at his career stats, the only question is why Bell didn't receive this honor earlier in his career.
With such a successful college career, Bell's performance and attributes have made him a coveted early round draft choice in the upcoming NFL Draft. Let's take a look at why.
Strengths: Ball hawk, playmaking ability, sure tackler
Often fans want safeties who can knock the snot out of someone. Basically, someone like Zack Dumas. The Ohio State defensive back from the late 1980s is known for laying one of the biggest hits ever, and regularly instilled fear in anyone who had the guts to cross his side of the field.
Ex-Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash has stated that Bell is "One of the best tacklers I've been around," but in addition to this tackling ability, it's Bell's habit of putting himself in the right position to make plays that has NFL scouts salivating.
Late in the first quarter in the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game, Wisconsin was driving (that was not a typo). Instead of giving the ball to their Heisman runner-up running back Melvin Gordon, the Badgers opted for a play action pass.
Ohio State came out in a cover three defense that saw the thirds of the field split by defenders Doran Grant, Eli Apple and Tyvis Powell. Bell plays the role of the strong safety on this play, and rolls into the box to provide extra support against the run prior to the snap. Upon reading pass, Bell begins to move into his coverage zone in the flats.
In a cover three defense players now are asked to make more than just one read to find their fit. In this case, it is Bell's job to get underneath the outermost wide receiver, creating as small of a window as possible for the quarterback to hit his downfield threat. Any routes in the flat are secondary priority to Bell, as he would be able to come up and make the tackle for a short gain.
Bell does a great job creating a very small window for the quarterback's number one wide receiver, but Bell wasn't done. Upon getting himself in proper position, Bell is able to locate the quarterback and read his eyes. I'm not certain Bell ever even saw the wide receiver this pass is intended for, but because of his innate ability to read where a quarterback wants to go with the ball, Bell was able to do what he does best: make plays.
Bell stepped right in front of the intended Badger and swiftly ended any hope Wisconsin had of putting a drive together. All in a day's work at the Vonn Bell Academy.
Weaknesses: Size, not a "big hitter"
Bell is what some might call a "drag down tackler". Basically, he's not going to hit your running back into tomorrow, but he'll get them onto the ground. With Ohio State's focus on rugby style tackling, the point nowadays is less trying to knock a receiver's head off, and more safely bringing the opponent down. With that said, there is definitely a case to be made for the safety that instills fear in any receiver bold enough to cross the middle of the field, unfortunately for Bell he doesn't quite have that ability in his repertoire. Some of this has to do with his smaller stature, as any height value not starting with a six will raise a red flag to NFL scouts.
Best Case NFL Comparison: Earl Thomas
I realize that it could be seen as a stretch saying that Bell's ceiling is arguably the best safety in today's NFL, but Bell really does have the natural talent to absolutely thrive at the next level. This weekend's combine should do a lot to test Bell's athleticism, but if Bell's combine numbers place him in the upper echelon of safeties, teams should be hoping to find themselves the next Earl Thomas in Vonn Bell.
Thomas is the Seattle Seahawks free safety, and his ability to take away the middle of the field is second to none in today's NFL. While relatively undersized at 5'10 203 lbs, Thomas has no issue laying down the wood, and has made five pro bowls in his first six seasons. If Bell can combine all of his natural talent into a player friendly scheme that allows him to just go out there and play, look out.
Worst Case NFL Comparison: Marcus Gilchrist
One of the concerns with Bell is that he doesn't always blow you away with speed on tape. No one is saying that Bell isn't athletic, but a free safety in today's NFL is often tasked with sitting in the deep middle of the field before bolting to either hash to make a play on the ball. Tenths of seconds can be the difference in making an interception or making a tackle, so elite speed and play recognition is required to be a great free safety.
Marcus Gilchrist is a average safety. Drafted in the second round to team up with Eric Weddle, Gilchrist enjoyed limited success in San Diego before moving on to the New York Jets. Gilchrist's 5'10 198 lb frame certainly hasn't helped matters, but most notably he has lacked the ability to consistently be a playmaker on the backend of a defense. Bell is extremely talented, but so is the rest of the NFL. If Bell doesn't fulfill his full potential, he could be looking at a career as an average NFL safety.
NFL Draft Projection: Early Round 2
Bell has bounced around the bottom of the first round and top of the second round in most mock drafts, and this seems about right. While Jalen Ramsey is unanimously viewed as the number one safety in this class, it's Ramsey's ability to also be a lockdown corner that has him so high in most mocks. Safeties simply aren't normally picked super high in the NFL. Last year the New York Giants traded up to the first pick of the second round to draft the falling Alabama safety Landon Collins. That same area should be about the time Bell hears his name called as well.
Most "Vonn Bell" Play:
I typically use this section to highlight a less memorable play from the player's career, but this is the same player who regularly pleaded with wide receiver coach Zach Smith to let him touch the ball and be a playmaker. What better play thus demonstrates Vonn Bell then a nasty pick six that sees him juke out one offensive player before diving into the end-zone just inside the pylon? Thanks for a great career Vonn.