The Pittsburgh Steelers have heard for years now about how they need to invest early draft picks into their secondary in older to bolster their pass defense. Outside of their second round pick being a cornerback by the name of Senquez Golson from Ole Miss, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have ignored those cries.
The Steelers' secondary is made up of veterans such as William Gay and Will Allen, long time players for Pittsburgh that know the franchise well and can be plugged into the scheme where necessary, as well as veterans such as Mike Mitchell, Brandon Boykin and Ross Cockrell who have found their way to Pittsburgh through other means. While Boykin may be lost to free agency this offseason, Cockrell and Gay will be the leading members at the cornerback position going into 2016 barring any major moves, and should be accompanied by Golson and the oft injured Cortez Allen.
While the team could use a fresh addition to the cornerback position, the more dire need at the moment might just be at safety. Mike Mitchell had a solid second season for Pittsburgh after many were questioning the team's signing of him in free agency before 2014. However behind him at safety are a group of players which Pittsburgh cannot put too much faith in. Will Allen is an aging veteran that is a solid fill in player when you need someone who knows the system and can fit a role, but is not the athlete which Pittsburgh would desire to fly around at safety.
Shamarko Thomas has gone from being a promising fourth round pick to his lowlights outshining his highlights through his third season with the team. The most promising talent at safety right now is the undrafted Robert Golden who recorded his first career interception against the Cincinnati Bengals this season. While he was a solid fill in, he's much like a younger Will Allen, not the superstar the team would like to have making plays in the secondary.
This is my case for the Steelers to invest into the safety position instead of the cornerback position if they were to sure up the secondary in the early rounds of this NFL draft. While my preferable choice for a first round pick would be a pass rusher or a defensive player that can help sure up the front, there are talents at safety this season which should peak interest in Kevin Colbert going into the NFL Scouting Combine. And there may be no better candidate for Pittsburgh's needs at the safety position than Ohio State's Vonn Bell.
According to NFL.com, Bell looks to enter the 2016 NFL Draft to forgo his senior year. This makes him a top safety in the 2016 NFL recruiting class. While the Steelers are stuck at the 25th pick of the draft, barring any trade, early mock drafts do not seem to have Bell going early to any teams before the Steelers would get their chance.
That being said, let's take a look at what Bell brings to the table as a player.
Bell has an official listing for a 5' 11" 200 lbs. frame as a safety. While the NFL Scouting Combine still has to occur to clock his official athletic statistics, his best 40 yard dash time was clocked at 4.45 three years ago when he committed to Ohio State. While Walterfootball.com estimates his 40 yard dash time to be around 4.66 after his junior season, a lot will be told on Bell's athleticism in less than two weeks when defensive backs report for the combine.
According to Dane Brugler's scouting report on Bell at cbssports.com, Bell's strengths come in matching up with receivers in the passing game. His ball skills were among the best in the NCAA at defensive backs over the past three seasons. He recorded six interceptions in 2014, two of which came in the playoffs, and two interceptions in 2015. His hands and reaction to the ball are the most impressive of his talents, so that is what we will focus on for now.
Pass Defense vs. Hawaii
Before we highlight his hands, let's look at his cover skills. Watch Bell find his assignment and then scrape the field with the tight end as Hawaii's quarterback rolls right and looks to connect for a first down to get out of their own end zone. Bell read and reacts just the way you want a safety. He mantains his positiion and runs with the tight end, not interfering with his route enough to draw a penalty, but being in the perfect spot to swat away the pass. This is something we do not get a lot of in watching the most recent Steelers on defense when it comes to the safety position. Being able to run with receiving options, especially when the quarterback is buying time, is a trait that every NFL wants in a defensive back.
While Bell would make an interception later this game, this play stood out to me for his ability to fulfill his assignment and make a solid play on the ball.
Interception vs. Virginia Tech
I could not find the view I wanted to fully illustrate Bell's break on this play. But he comes out of his zone to make this interception. This shows his ability to break on the ball and be an X-factor for a secondary. The quarterback thinks he has a safe out route to the sideline, but Bell is able to cut under the pattern and create a crucial turnover for Ohio State. His ability to fly around in space would make him an asset. The biggest question is just how fast he can move when compared to the other safeties in this draft class; but this is something that we can review in the months between the combine and the draft.
Interception vs. Clemson, 2014-2015 Playoffs:
This was one of the plays of the game from the 2014 Orange Bowl when Ohio State would face Clemson. It shows multiple positive factors in Bell's abilities that we can observe from how he reacts to a mobile quarterback and the route run b the receiver.
Watch how Bell initially runs with his man to cover the out route just past the sticks; you can see him allow the receiver to break but still be in position to break on the ball should Tajh Boyd throw the ball. Once the short out route has run its course, Bell realizes that the opposing quarterback, Boyd, could gain the first down or even score just by running the ball. He then perfectly positions himself at the sticks in order to force Boyd to throw the ball over his head. While the announcer in this game said that Boyd was "trying to get cute" with his pass here, it's not all that bad of an effort. Forcing Bell to come up and guard the first down did open up the receiver in the end zone for a chance to catch a quick pass from Boyd.
The problem was that Boyd did not anticipate Bell's vertical leap, nor his hands to be that adept at stopping such a quick pass when Bell just put himself in position to stop the run. This shows Bell's ability to 1) read plays; 2) show situational awareness in protecting the sticks; and 3) his general ball skills.
Draft Stock for Pittsburgh:
The Steelers may have the opportunity to draft Bell should his current projected draft stock stay where it is right now. Between the mocks of ESPN's Mel Kiper, USA Today's Jon Ledyard and walterfootball.com's Charlie Campbell, none of them have Bell even being selected in the first round of this NFL draft.
While, even sstill, it is early to call it premature to say whose draft stock will be at the top or in the middle rounds, this could work in Pittsburgh's favor should it look to add another Ohio State recruit to the defense alongside Ryan Shazier and Cameron Heyward if Bell remains out of the top of rankings at the safety position.
What will tell the tale for Bell will be his combine numbers. If he impresses by clocking his 40 yard dash time around 4.5, he could make himself a much more attractive candidate for teams. His explosiveness and strength will also be on watch to see how quickly he can cut and move in different directions.
What may not be able to be helped from his numbers at the combine would be the notion that he is a liability in his tackling skills. Brugler's earlier mentioned scouting report quickly points to his not so refined tackling ability. Bell's tape which we did not cover in this article is that he does not come off as an intimidator in the secondary. He often can get run over and does not make big hits, something that Pittsburgh safeties have been known for over the years, and fails to properly break down in space to make the necessary tackle in run support.
We did not cover that aspect on GIFs because of our requirement to remain at three per article, but we also thought it would be best to show his highlights in pass defense, considering that was Pittsburgh's biggest weakness in 2015. Keep an eye on the stats and stock of Bell as we get closer to draft day and we may revisit his fundamentals at a later date should he continue to be a player of interest. But at this point he comes off less as a run support type of safety to the like of USC's Su'a Cravens and more of a defender of the pass.