Like many of the Cowboys' invitees, Le'Veon Bell's collegiate career enjoyed an auspicious beginning. As a true freshman, he accumulated 605 yards and eight TDs in the season's first six weeks, before giving way to Edwin Baker for the remainder of the year. In 2011, however, Bell flipped the script on Baker, starting the last six games and piling up 948 yards on 182 carries, with thirteen scores (he added 267 receiving yards in 35 catches). In his junior season, Bell had the backfield all to himself, toting the rock 382 times, en route to rushing for 1,793 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Bell has sufficient size (6'1" and 230 lbs) to be the brutish, between-the-tackles running back that could get vital yards in short yardage and goal line situations. But also shows the quickness and nimble feet (he led running backs in the 3-cone drill at the Combine, with a 6.75 second mark) to make defenders miss at any level of the field. Moreover, he displays soft hands (he caught 78 passes in his three year MSU career) and the ability turn up field quickly once he's made the grab.
Desire ocular proof? Let's go to the tape. Here is Bell in a Big Ten smorgasbord: from 2012, we have rivals Northwestern and Iowa; from 2011, Minnesota and Wisconsin. As is evident on tape, Bell doesn't possess the kind of speed and vision that Giovani Bernard does. But the rest of his game is complete; he has an intriguing blend of power and lateral quickness, and has "complete back" tendencies, with the ability to make plays in both the running and passing game.
What think our scouts of Bell? Will they be Spartan in their assessments or offer encomiums of praise? You won't have to wait to see; just scroll down.
ESPN/ Scouts, Inc. (Gary Horton): 4th-rated RB; 84th overall
Competitiveness: Fighter that steps out of spins out of and jumps over would-be tackles. Rarely goes down with first contact. Kind of back that can grind out yards and eat clock with a lead late in the game. Doesn't show the same aggressiveness as a pass blocker that does as a runner. Can do a better job of turning and looking for someone to hit after a teammate makes a catch. Lost two of four fumbles in 2012 and doesn't always keep the ball tight to frame.
Vision/ Patience: Excellent patience and makes the most of lead blockers. Doesn't leave many yards on the field but has some tunnel vision and misses cutback lanes. Appears more comfortable and natural running power than does running straight zone out of one-back sets. Misses opportunities to square shoulders and get vertical.
Agility/ Acceleration: Above average lateral mobility and body control for size. Makes crisp jump cuts and can bounce runs outside after starting inside. Makes first defender miss more times than not. Makes it tough for defenders to get a clean shot on him when he gets into space. Doesn't have the second gear to run away from pursuit and can get chased down from behind. Initial quickness appears average but just average on film.
Power/ Balance: Runs with good forward lean and almost always falls forward. Flashes the ability to lower shoulder, uncoil and knock defenders back on contact. Drags defenders for extra yards. Drives legs and pushes the pile when gets a seam. Powerful stiff arm and can put defenders on their backs when gets into space. Spins out of would-be tackles. Flashes the ability to recover when gets knocked off balance. The only time gets into trouble is when doesn't keep pads down.
Passing Game: Has experience lining up wide and in the slot in addition to releasing out of the backfield. Above average route runner for the position and flashes the ability to shake man coverage. Strength and wiggle make him a threat after the catch. Appears to have big hands and flashes the ability to pull the ball out of the air with one hand but can take eye off the ball before secures it and drops passes that should catch. Traps the ball against frame too much. Can cut the legs out from under defenders and big enough to anchor in pass protection but doesn't always aggressively step up. Above average awareness and locates assignment more times than not.
Intangibles: Voted Most Valuable Player (Governor's Award) by his teammates in 2012. Recipient of the team's Most Outstanding Underclass Back Award for offense in 2011.
CBSSports.com (Rob Rang): 9th-rated RB; 126th overall
Strengths: Strong-build and well proportioned with thick hips. Very good balance and stays low to the ground through contact. More of a downhill athlete who picks up speed as he goes. Stays light on his feet and has some deception to his game, slipping through cracks at the line of scrimmage. Tough runner to bring down cleanly, often carrying defenders. Good forward lean and pop to deliver blows at the point of attack. Not afraid to leave his feet to leap over defenders. Active receiver with good awareness in pass pro to pick up blitzes. Led Big Ten in rushing in 2012 (1,793 yards) with three 200-yard performances.
Weaknesses: Not overly powerful despite his size and lacks breakaway speed to leave defenders in the dust. Smooth acceleration but not a burner and shows little burst in his cuts. Lacks speed on stretch plays and won't be able to make a living in the NFL going east/west as much as he did in college. Too hesitant and patient at times and gets himself in trouble when he stops his feet, taking time to survey the field and figure it his next move. Wears down late in games and at times looks to have checked out. Needs technique work in pass protection, leaving his feet too often and struggling to square his shoulders and gain proper positioning. Hands are normally reliable but will struggle on passes away from his frame. Has a lot of touches on his resume. Some rumblings that he is a "me-first" player.
Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki): 6th-rated RB; 92nd overall
Positives: Excellent size. Outstanding agility for his size (verified by a 6.75-second 3-cone time) - can step out of tackles, drop his shoulder and plow through contact. Good leg strength to carry defenders after contact. Surprising hurdling ability in the open field. Is light on his feet and displays an effective spin move. Very good balance. Extremely soft hands and natural receiving skills. Highly durable throughout career.
Negatives: Easily contained vs. better defenses (Notre Dame, Ohio State and Wisconsin) and could struggle to break tackles and avoid contact in the NFL. Tends to run upright and is not overly creative - does not string moves together and is not dynamic in the hole. Only shows one gear - lacks suddenness. Takes time to get started and gets caught at the line of scrimmage. Uses too much finesse and does not punish defenders like he is capable of doing - not a fiery competitor. Narrow vision in pass protection and is not as effective as his size would suggest.
Summary: A finesse big back who produced highly behind a mediocre offensive line and picks up yardage in chunks. Has the balanced skill set desired in an every-down back, but may struggle to reach his second contract given his upright style and inability to avoid direct hits.
Ourlads (Dan Shonka): top-rated RB; 58th overall
Junior entry. Started 19 games over two years. Running backs like this are disappearing like dinosaurs and fullbacks. Was part of a two-back rotation as a sophomore. Durable and athletic. Graded out as our 4th best athlete out of 34 backs who competed at the Combine. Prepares like a pro, already dropping ten pounds after the season ended - and was sharp in the Spartans' bowl game and in his Combine workout. Production as a downhill runner who breaks tackles. Workhorse type back who is patient, waits for a crease, and slams through it. A North-South runner. Thick hips and thighs. Runs with power and athletic ability. Good foot agility. Led the country in yards after contact. Soft hands and the ability to catch all pass routes. Good eye/ hand coordination. Effective blocker in pass protection. Lacks long finish speed. Needs a blocker to turn the corner. He would be prudent to stop hurdling cornerbacks downfield for self-preservation purposes. Grades out as a first year starter and will replace a declining starter if drafted into the right scheme.
And don't forget Archie's fine scouting report on Bell.
Our panel is fairly divided on Bell; they rate him anywhere between 58th and 126th overall, grades which would place him between the late second and mid fourth rounds. On his national media conference call last week, NFL Network draft guru Mayock said of Bell: "because of his size, height, weight, speed, I don't really see him getting out of the third round. I think he's too big and pretty." I'm inclined to agree with Mayock, and have him in round three on our 2013 "little board."
Bell's 2012 season resembled DeMarco Murray's in that neither had much of an offensive line and thus found holes hard to come by, often getting to the line, finding no running room, and plowing forward for minimal yardage. Also like Murray, he is a big, one-cut downhill runner capable of contributing in the passing game. In fact, all of the backs the Cowboys invited to Valley Ranch fit that one-cut, downhill, North-South style profile (which suggests that the team intends to incorporate more zone principles into the offense). Of the candidates, Bell and Stanford's Stepfan Taylor are my favorites. There is little to no debate: the Cowboys will take a runner this weekend. The questions are: who and when? If Bell ends up being the candidate, in the third round or later, I'll be just fine with the selection.
Next up: Oklahoma State RB Joseph Randle