Vonn Bell is the best safety in this year's draft class. Just ask him. The Ohio State ball hawk makes it known on the eve of the 2016 NFL scouting combine.
“I really feel that way," Bell said. "I really do. I am the best safety in this class.”
“Leader. On the field coach. I feel like I have the whole package.”
And the Buffalo Bills will be listening.
The status of Aaron Williams (neck) is a mystery and will remain a mystery until August. One day, general manager Doug Whaley said the safety is "ready to go." And yet the same week, Williams indicated that training camp will determine his playing future. He'll know if he can continue his NFL career once he starts delivering hits again. So despite Whaley's optimism at the Senior Bowl, Buffalo might need to cover its bases. The playmaking Bell will be intriguing after totaling 92 tackles six interceptions and six pass breakups on the Buckeyes' 2014 national title team and 65 tackles, two interceptions, nine pass breakups last fall.
Miscommunication plagued the Bills' safety play a year ago. Could Corey Graham become a cap casualty? Does the team sign RFA Bacarri Rambo? Will Leodis McKelvin make a permanent switch to safety?
The plan at the position will crystallize through the offseason. Buffalo will need a smart, vocal presence relaying Rex Ryan's complicated scheme.
Bell vows he'd fit the bill. He was the intelligent, emotional leader of the one of the nation's best secondaries.
“Preparation," Bell said. "I just wanted to be that guy to make the play for the team — be that spark. Provide that energy. Get my guys going. And when you have that spark, you’re steamrolling downhill and everybody starts making plays. You’re out there celebrating with your teammates, your brothers. You just want to be that guy who provides that energy. And it’s all off preparation. Constant film study. Knowing your opponent. Know what type of routes they run, know what type of ball the quarterback throws."
Bell points to a momentum-changing interception in Ohio State's 42-35 win over Alabama in the 2014 semifinal upset.
During the week leading up to the game, he noticed that Alabama liked running a waggle play in which the quarterback rolled right and threw a deep post. So he told his position coach Chris Ash to let him play the deep middle on that look and he'd pick it off.
"And I did," Bell said. "It was right in the end zone, right in the middle of the field. O.J. Howard was running a deep post and I jumped right in front of it to pick the ball off.
“You have to put in the preparation and time. And once you prepare and make the game come easier to you, you know what plays they run. ... The game is a lot slower to you.”
As a result, Bell helped lead the renaissance at Ohio State. A program on the rocks is now back on top.
In this defense, Bell was asked to cover receivers man to man "basically the whole game," too. A lot was put on his shoulders. The Buckeyes relied heavily on single coverage from all four DB's to let the front seven rush.
Usually in off coverage, as opposed to press, Bell relied on what he saw on film.
Said Bell, "We just took our guys over the other guys.”
Of course, adjusting to Roger Goodell's NFL can be very difficult for all safeties out of college. Flags fly freely in this changing league; the target zone is shrinking. Bell brushes this challenge off, saying the Buckeyes' emphasis on rugby-style tackling prepares him for the pros.
In college, Ohio State adopted the Seattle Seahawks' rugby approach, a leverage-based tactic that forces players to take their head out of the equation.
"And it worked for us tremendously," Bell said. "We were the No. 1 team with the least missed tackles for the past three years. So it worked tremendously for us. And they’re still doing it. It just worked."
Now, at the NFL scouting combine, Bell can add some more bite to his declaration. This is his shot to further assert himself as the No. 1 safety in the draft and maybe dot Buffalo's radar at No. 19 overall.
If entrusted with Ryan's defense, Bell isn't worried about getting lost in the X's and O's.
“I don’t know much about their defense but I’m a very smart, intelligent guy," he said. "You just have to study the game and work on your craft.”
Here are five other defensive backs to track in Indy...
S Karl Joseph (West Virginia): Very competitive, hard-hitting safety who's always playing downfield. A first-team All-Big 12 selection as a junior with 92 stops (4.5 for loss) and three forced fumbles. Had five picks in four games before a knee injury ended his senior season.
S Darien Thompson (Boise State): The 6-foot-1, 215-pounder isn't afraid to take a risk in coverage. Sometimes, it backfired. Many times, it led to big plays for the Broncos. Intercepted 19 passes in his collegiate career --- has hands like a receiver. Added five tackles for loss, eight pass break-ups his final year.
CB Jalen Ramsey (Florida State): Potential Top 5 pick who has drawn Richard Sherman comparisons at 6 foot 1, 205 pounds with elite physical traits. Moonlighted as a sprinter and ACC-champion long-jumper on the FSU track team and recorded a 40-inch vertical in high school. Finished with 52 tackles (3.5 for loss) with 10 pass break-ups in 2015.
CB Vernon Hargreaves (Florida): Last three seasons, he recorded 10 interceptions and 38 passes defensed. Knows how to close on the ball and make plays. Risk-taking cost him at times. Struggled in the SEC Championship Game but possesses athleticism teams seek on the boundary.
CB Cyrus Jones (Alabama): Experienced in press coverage, Jones recorded 37 tackles, two interceptions and seven pass break-ups last season. Had a domestic charge dropped last spring that teams will be following up on this week at the Combine.
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