By Bucky Brooks
Published: March 1, 2013 at 8:27 AM
Modified: March 1, 2013 at 10:42 AM
I'm about to let you in on a little secret that is circulating through scouting circles following the NFL Scouting Combine: Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell is the best running back in the 2013 NFL Draft, and it's not even close.
Now, I know that statement certainly will cause some consternation among the legions of Eddie Lacy, Montee Ball and Giovani Bernard supporters, but there is not a more complete back in this draft than Bell. Checking in at 6-foot-1 3/8 and 230 pounds, Bell is an old-school runner with the size and strength to grind between the tackles, yet he's quick enough to get to the edge on perimeter runs. Moreover, he is a dependable workhorse capable of shouldering a heavy workload as the primary runner.
As a junior, Bell was the Michigan State offense, rushing for 1,793 yards and 12 touchdowns. He accomplished those totals on 382 rushing attempts, with seven games of at least 30 carries. Some evaluators will view the heavy workload as a concern, due to the short shelf life of running backs. But I believe the fact that Bell carried the ball extensively without incident suggests he is not only durable, but also possesses the hard-nosed mentality to be a feature back as a pro.
Bell is also a dependable receiver out of the backfield, possessing the hands and receiving skills to be an integral part of a complex passing game. Over the past two seasons, he snagged 67 receptions, showing the capacity to run basic routes from his tailback spot. Although he is not a matchup nightmare in space, the fact that he is functional as a receiver will allow an offensive coordinator to keep him on the field in every situation, preventing opponents from honing in on the running game when Bell is in the huddle.
When I broke down the game tape, I came away viewing Bell as a Steven Jackson clone. Bell not only runs with a similar gait, but he displays the patience and vision to excel in a zone-based scheme. Bell's ability to read and set up his blocks at the line of scrimmage routinely leads to big gains when plays are executed properly. Additionally, Bell displays the ability to put together a sequence of cuts beyond the line of scrimmage. From multiple jump cuts to crafty spin moves in the open field, Bell's ability to make defenders miss at his size is quite rare. With Bell more than capable of running through contact, gaining 951 yards after contact in 2012, it is not surprising he has become a favorite of scouts and coaches around the league.
Now, that's not to say Bell is without flaws. He doesn't show explosive first-step quickness, and some scouts worry about his overall toughness, despite the remarkable production. In fact, one AFC official told me he wonders if Bell views himself as a "dancer," rather than a pounder with the ball in his hands. Regardless, I believe Bell is an impact runner with the skills to make a difference in the right offensive system.
Here are five teams that are perfect fits for Bell, in my opinion:
The Broncos were terrific in Peyton Manning's debut season, but the offensive potency certainly diminished when injuries to Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno weakened the running game. To alleviate the problem in the future, Denver could consider adding Bell to the mix. The Spartan star is a terrific fit in the team's zone-running scheme. Most importantly, he is an outstanding pass catcher with the potential to develop into a lethal weapon out of the backfield. Some of Manning's best years came with Edgerrin James behind him in Indianapolis. The Broncos could give their franchise quarterback another explosive playmate.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Despite Aaron Rodgers' unquestioned greatness, he can't continue to single-handedly carry the Packers' offense without some semblance of a running game. Opponents have tormented Green Bay with a variety of two-man concepts, eliminating some of the open windows in the passing game. The addition of Bell would force opponents to respect the ground attack and offset those tactics. Consequently, the Packers would see more eight-man fronts with single coverage on the outside, leading to big plays off play-action. Green Bay relied on a similar formula when Ryan Grant was at his best; Mike McCarthy could dust off the blueprint with Bell in the backfield.
Dirk Koetter has transformed the Falcons into a pass-first offense, but the team still needs a rugged presence in the backfield to close out games in the fourth quarter -- especially now that the Michael Turner era has officially come to a close. Bell is a classic throwback runner who can pound the ball between the tackles. Additionally, he is effective in the screen game, which would make him a dangerous weapon in the Falcons' lineup. With Julio Jones and Roddy White attracting the defense's attention, Bell could offer Koetter a nice diversion as a dynamic running back.
Darren McFadden is one of the top runners in the NFL, but he is at his best when playing as part of a rotation that features another workhorse. Michael Bush thrived in that role in the past, but he departed via free agency in 2012, and McFadden was incapable of shouldering the load on his own. By adding Bell to the lineup, the Raiders would alleviate some of the pressure on McFadden, while also adding some variety to the running game. Bell would provide the Raiders with some toughness, allowing the team to play power football under Dennis Allen. With both Super Bowl teams adhering to that principle, the Raiders might be wise to follow suit.
New offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton will continue to build the Colts' offense around the talents of Andrew Luck, but he also will rely on some of the principles utilized at Stanford to make the second-year pro comfortable. One of those tactics will be the implementation of a hard-nosed running game, fueled by the power. With his unique combination of size, strength and quickness, Bell is ideally suited to play in a scheme that mixes the power with inside and outside zones. Additionally, Bell is a natural pass catcher with the ability to run most of the routes on the route tree. Given Hamilton's vision of a balanced and diverse offense that attacks the opponent's weakness, Bell could be an explosive chess piece to utilize in key moments.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.