Talents on the Fringe: RB Shakir Bell

Some talents on the fringe get their act together. Others, like Nate Davis, make bad on three golden opportunities. Photo my John Martinez Pavliga.
Some talents on the fringe get their act together. Others, like Nate Davis, make bad on three golden opportunities. Photo my John Martinez Pavliga.

Every draft has a handful of players where the talent is there, but they don’t register on the draft media’s Richter Scale.

When it comes to the lens of the media, I’m drawn to players on the periphery. I enjoy uncovering the mystery behind players who perform well enough on the field to earn more attention, but haven’t done so.

Every year, I post about a few players who belong in this category of talented curiosities. Last year, there were three:

  • A high school hoodlum who saw his brother earn a football scholarship and decided to abandon his dead-end career to learn the craft of playing wide receiver at a community college on the opposite coast of his hometown. His dedication earned him a scholarship at an SEC school, but he opted to transfer before setting foot on campus because the head coach who recruited him bolted for another program. The school behaved like a spurned lover and delayed his request until he only had a limited amount of time to show scouts that he could play. Still, as a UDFA last summer his work was good enough that many experienced football writers and scouts said that Kenbrell Thompkins often looked like the best player on the field.
  • A four-star prospect from Memphis who this big-time, out-of-state SEC program pried away from the Tennessee region to pair with a future NFL star. This prospect never earned the production that the team expected from him, but his teammates and coaches still raved about him as a player, a teammate, and a worker. He began to do more than flash those skills on the field as a senior, but tore his ACL the November before the NFL Draft. The Texans gave this UDFA a try out, but cut the receiver in the spring. The Baltimore Ravens added him to its roster that summer and all Marlon Brown did as a rookie was catch 49 balls for 524 yards and score 7 touchdowns less than a year removed from an ACL tear.
  • A bowling ball of a college runner who tore through defenses with his power, balance, and vision at a program off the radar. His draft stock was gaining some traction before suffering a similar knee tendon injury as Ryan Williams and Cadillac Williams in the middle of his senior year. Yet, Benny Cunningham displaced two higher profile prospects for the backup role on the Rams depth chart and has a strong shot to maintain that job heading into the spring.

But for every Thompkins, Brown, Cunningham, Bobby Rainey, LaVon Brazill, or Alfred Morris, there are guys like Kenny Turner, Nate Davis, or Darren Evans, gifted players who disappear from the radar just as fast as they made the briefest of blips on the screen.

One of these players might be Indiana State running back Shakir Bell. The 5’8″, 185-pound runner would be my vote as one of the most talented pound-for-pound runners in this draft class. A third-team AP All-American in 2012, Bell is the type of runner that can make a one-year loss look like the best carry you’ve seen all week.

The reason you haven’t heard of him is that he played for the Indiana State and the reason he was a Sycamore is that, according to someone I know familiar with Bell, the runner has a reputation for flying against this classic line of advice:

Keep your head down, your ears open, and your mouth shut

According to this source, Darren Evans – a big back at Virginia Tech with NFL power – who also came from Bell’s high school program, had the same problem. Evans hung around the Colts practice squad that was in dire need of a running back to step up. Evans had the talent to do so, but didn’t make it happen.

In recent posts, I’ve been citing unnamed sources. I don’t do this lightly. At the same time, I acknowledge that despite the fact that I trust this man’s opinion, what he’s heard about Bell could be wrong. Hopefully teams will conduct interviews with due diligence.

Still this type of behavior assigned to Bell is not uncommon. I was also told that a learning disability is not the reason Nate Davis is bouncing around minor league football.

Davis had the belief that he didn’t have to apply himself at an intensity that matched the intensity of his talent. Davis was on the 49ers before the team drafted Colin Kaepernick; the Seahawks before the team picked Russell Wilson; and the Colts prior to the acquisition of Andrew Luck.

In my estimation, Davis is as physically talented and as naturally inclined to play the position as any of these three young stars. He had three golden opportunities that he botched because he didn’t want to embrace the mental and emotional discipline that the game demands from a player day in and day out. Todd Marinovich – for different reasons – had a similar issue. Success in pro football goes way beyond physical and conceptual talent for the position.

Still, I’m a lover of redemption stories and Bell is young enough to take the path of Dez Bryant, Josh Gordon, and several others have done. Here are two plays that give you an idea of Bell’s skill as a runner.

This is a nine-yard gain on 2nd and 4 from an I-formation set. The design of the play is to take the ball to left tackle behind the fullback, but the defensive tackle over the left guard gets penetration inside and is already two yards into the backfield as Bell takes the exchange.

Bell still presses to the outside, but then makes a hard cut across the face of the defender just inches away. Bell then gets down hill, runs behind the guard and bursts past the defensive tackle working from the backside.

Bell then runs through that wrap, gets up the left hash and runs through another attempt to wrap his leg for three yards. He finishes with a burst inside a small crease between his fullback and right guard for another four yards before he’s wrapped high-low by two defenders and dragged to the ground.

This is the type of run that encompasses a lot of skills that I value in runners: anticipation of his opponents; quick and smart reaction to penetration into the backfield; agility balanced with a down-hill mentality; and good, old-fashion, low pad level to finish with leverage and determination.

Here’s a one-yard loss from a shotgun set. The line slants left as Bell takes the ball towards the unbalanced strong side of the formation. The defensive tackle penetrates four yards into the backfield just after Bell completes the exchange.

Even so, the runner stops and cuts inside the tackle, making the defender miss.  The defensive end working past the right tackle wraps Bell, but the little runner is quick and strong enough to run through the grasp of the lineman and then flash the balance and agility to spin through the outside linebackers hit to reach the right flat. He then dips through a third lineman’s attempt at the line of scrimmage  Bell ran through that wrap but then was hit by the OLB. He spun outside that hit and worked to the right flat, dipping inside a third defensive lineman near the line of scrimmage to come impossibly close to earning yardage on a play doomed to fail.

There are several more plays I could share that highlight Bell’s skill and feel for the game. What only Bell knows is if he can develop the emotional maturity to match his talent. If he does, you may hear his name again. If not, you’ll another name that underscores the point that talent isn’t everything.

For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio.The 2014 RSP will available April 1 and if you pre-order before February 10, you get a 10 percent discount. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.

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