At the Scouting Combine, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy talked longingly of lining up with a do-it-all running back.
“Three-down back is what you want to play with,” McCarthy said. “No one likes to come out of the game and I’d rather them stay in the game (when I’m) calling plays. Just looking back at my experiences, it’s nicer when you have one guy and you’re feeding him. There’s more rhythm to your play-calling and there’s more of a rhythm to the run-blocking unit and the fits of the protection and so forth, and then you take it and extend it into the passing game with the checkdowns.”
There isn’t a better three-down back in this draft — and there isn’t a more underrated back from a media perspective — than Michigan State’s Le'Veon Bell.
Pro Football Weekly’s draft preview lists Bell as its fifth-best running back and a second- or third-round prospect. NFLDraftScout.com lists Bell as its ninth-ranked back and a fourth-round prospect. NFL.com’s Mike Mayock doesn’t include Bell among his top five backs. OptimumScouting.com lists Bell at No. 18 and a fifth-round prospect.
Bell is used to being the football version of Rodney “No Respect” Dangerfield. Coming out of Groveport (Ohio) Madison High School, Bell was just a two-star recruit. Only five FBS schools gave him a chance to play running back. Bell settled on Michigan State, with one big caveat from coach Mark Dantonio:
“Coach D, he told me basically, ‘We’re going to offer you as a running back but if it doesn’t work out in the spring, we’re going to change your position. Are you OK with that?’” Bell recalled in an interview with Packer Report on Friday. “I said, ‘Yes.’ All I wanted was a chance to show him that I could play. During that spring, I showed him I could play and I played as a true freshman.”
After splitting time with Edwin Baker during his first two seasons, Bell had a monster junior season of 1,793 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“Yeah, it makes me upset,” Bell said of the analysts’ opinions. “I can’t get too upset because it’s something I can’t control. Some people don’t think I can play at the next level. The people that think I’m going in the third round, that’s fine. Whenever a team takes me, I’m going to bring everything to that team. I definitely feel valuable enough to go in the first. I feel like I’m the best running back in this class.”
Three NFL scouts essentially agreed with Bell’s opinion. Two called him the best back in the draft — ahead of Alabama’s Eddie Lacy — and a first-round pick.
“He’s the most logical pick that they could make,” a scout said of the Packers using their top pick on Bell. “He’s better by leaps and bounds than any back in the draft. I don’t think there’s a more complete running back in the draft. Don’t look at the stats: This kid can catch with the best of them.”
Bell hurdles Notre Dame's Zeke Motta.
Mike Carter/USA Today Sports
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The other scout said Bell would go early in the second.
“For that style — zone running, downhill — he’s a good back for that style of offense,” he said in relating Bell’s skills to Green Bay’s scheme. “Plus, he can catch the ball out of the backfield and he can block.”
The Packers like big backs, and Bell is that at 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds. He’s a north-south runner who consistently gains yardage, whether it’s by plowing through defenders or jumping over them as they go for his ankles or knees. In 2012, Bell led the nation with 382 rushes. Of them, he was stopped for no gain or negative yardage 39 times. That’s a “stuff percentage” of 10.2 — lowest among the top backs in the draft, according to STATS. He led the nation with 925 yards in the second half or overtime and 481 yards in the fourth quarter.
Moreover, his 922 yards after contact led the nation.
“I think that’s the best stat for a running back,” Bell said. “It shows the things you do after your line does its job. The line’s going to do its job and the rest is on you to make guys miss, whether I’m juking them, whether I’m spinning, whether I’m jumping over them, whether I’m running them over, whether I’m coming out of the backfield and catching a pass. I just make plays, and I think that stat shows that I make plays.”
With McCarthy looking for a three-down back, Bell offers superior pass protection and soft hands. He had back-to-back seasons of 35 and 32 receptions, and scouts were impressed by Bell’s pass-catching skills at his pro day.
“I can be in the game on first-and-10, I can be in the game on third-and-10 and I can be in the game on third-and-1,” Bell said. “I can play special teams — I’ve returned kicks, I’ve returned punts. As a value type of player, when it comes to pass protection and getting first downs, I feel like I can make that team a better team.”
That list potentially starts with Green Bay, which owns the 26th selection. The Packers, who had a formal interview with Bell at the Scouting Combine, showed their desire to upgrade their running back corps by going after Steven Jackson. While there might be bigger areas of need than running back, the Packers almost certainly would lose any gamble to get Bell in the second. Denver at No. 28 and San Francisco at No. 31 could pounce — both teams are extremely high on Bell, according to sources — as could Cincinnati, Arizona and the Jets early in the second round.
“That would be a great fit for me,” Bell said of landing in Green Bay. “They’ve got Aaron Rodgers and great receivers and a very good offensive line. It would be a blessing for me to play with Aaron Rodgers. With all of those guys on the outside, it would allow me to do work on the inside.”
With a little more than three weeks to go until the draft, Bell said he’s “anxious” as he waits to find out where he’ll be calling home. Wherever that is, Bell says they’ll be getting the same hungry player who had to prove his worth to Dantonio upon arriving in East Lansing a few years ago.
“That’s something I don’t think will ever go away because I always wanted to be a highly recruited guy,” Bell said. “I always looked at people picking their hats and choosing which school they wanted to go to on TV. I never had that opportunity, and I still have that chip on my shoulder. The fact that it’s happening again now for the NFL just makes me that much more hungry that people still doubt me.”
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.