After reloading the defense with a prospect at all three levels over the first two days of the 2015 NFL Draft, Trent Baalke’s board finally led him to the offensive side of the ball in the fourth round, beginning with Oklahoma tight end Blake Bell.
As you are undoubtedly aware of, "The Belldozer" was converted from a Tebow-style rushing quarterback to tight end in his final season with the Sooners. There was little in the way of production during that one season — Bell caught just 16 passes for 214 yards and four touchdowns — and there were plenty of growing pains as Bell tried to learn his new position on the fly. But the flashes of upside were frequent enough that many feel Bell could wind up as one of the top tight ends in this class if everything breaks right.
Fortunately for us, Bell played at one of the most prominent college football programs in the country with several full games available online, giving us plenty to study. Let’s go to the tape and see what Bell might be able to bring to theSan Francisco 49ers’ offense.
Where He Wins
Most of Bell’s work as a receiver is likely to occur between the numbers. While you’ll find the occasional quick out or flat route in his tape, the majority of Bell’s route tree consisted of in-breaking and seam routes. Bell was very adept at finding soft spots in zone coverage — possibly helped by his time as a quarterback and knowledge of the weak spots in coverages — often throttling down on a crossing route to settle in a vacated area and present a big target for his quarterback in the middle of the field.
Bell appears to be a much more natural pass catcher than the tight ends occupying the 49ers’ depth chart in recent seasons. He was consistently able to make receptions away from his frame and show off his catch radius, digging out a few receptions from near the turf and leaping up to snag a few others that were about to sail over his head. And as you can see in the final play in the above video, Bell flashed an effortless one-handed catch on a pass that looked like was going to be out of his reach.
It’s unlikely that he’ll ever be a guy that will go up and over defenders to take the ball away, but he has strong enough hands to make catches with a defender draped over his back. Once he learns how to more consistently take advantage of his size to shield defenders — Bell compares physically to players like Jason Witten, Travis Kelce, Martellus Bennett, and Heath Miller — Bell should excel in making contested catches over the middle.
Bell doesn’t have the same sort of straight-line speed that the group of aforementioned tight ends do, but he possess better change of direction skills. You won’t see him lined up outside running past cornerbacks down the sideline any time soon, but Bell has plenty of speed and athleticism to be able to threaten the seam and make some big plays after the catch.
Where He Needs To Improve
Blocking was a skill that didn’t come naturally to Bell in his transition from quarterback to tight end. The Belldozer was an apt nickname for his ability to win in short-yardage situations and push the pile as a quarterback, but he rarely showed the same sort functional strength as a blocker and was frequently tossed aside when forced to block defensive lineman one-on-one, particularly early in the season.
There were quite a few technique-related issues that you would expect with the limited time Bell has played the position, but they are things Bell will need to correct nonetheless. Bell routinely takes poor paths and attacks the wrong shoulder on kick-out blocks. Typically, when executing those blocks you want to attack the defender inside-out and put your helmet on his inside shoulder so that if he beats you, it will be to the outside, away from where the ballcarrier is going; Bell often did the opposite.
Bell’s attempts to cut block were pretty laughable (see: first play in above video). The first few times I watched him try and cut a defender, he whiffed entirely and hit nothing but air.
The encouraging news for the 49ers is that Bell showed marked improvement in these areas as the season went along. He still isn’t where he needs to be — and his mistakes will be exaggerated against NFL competition — but by the final two games I watched (Kansas State and Oklahoma State), Bell looked far more comfortable as a blocker. He was able to hold his own at the point of attack against defensive ends in gap-scheme running plays, even managing to take a few of them to the ground. Bell also proved to be a capable lead blocker on outside rushing plays.
Most impressively, on two different instances (both of which can be found in the video above) Bell successfully executed a combo block1 with the tackle next to him, opening up a rushing lane on a touchdown-producing play. After watching him struggle doing even the most basic blocking tasks in Tennessee early in the year, watching him pull off a more complex block like that was a testament to how far he came in one season. Once again, there’s still plenty here for Bell to improve upon, but his on-the-job development as the season progressed was impressive.
I didn’t get to see many plays in which Bell was forced to deal with press coverage, but from what was there, winning at the line of scrimmage as he’s getting into his routes will be a skill Bell needs to develop. Bell was frequently given a free release regardless of whether he lined up on the line of scrimmage as a traditional, inline tight end or in the slot. The couple times he did have to deal with the press, it looked something like the above GIF — Bell failing to use his hands or do much of anything to get by the defender and mostly just trying to run through him. He’ll need to develop a couple of press beaters or he won’t even make it into the route.
The Bottom Line
Like seemingly every pick from this draft class, Bell is physically impressive and has a ton of upside. If everything breaks his way, he could become a problem for defenses in the middle of the field and in the red zone while also adding value as a competent run blocker. But unless he develops at an absurd rate, it’s unlikely we’ll see much of that upside in 2015.
Baalke undoubtedly believes in this coaching staff’s ability to develop players, but realistically Bell isn’t going to be paying any dividends for at least another year, possibly two. Vernon Davis isn’t going anywhere for at least one season, but he is entering the final year of his contract. If next season looks anything like what happened in 2014, it’s hard to see Baalke bringing back a 32-year-old tight end coming off back-to-back abysmal campaigns. Vance McDonald has two years remaining on his rookie deal, but barring an unexpected leap forward, it seems incredibly unlikely he will ever become the best option at the position. That will be Bell’s opportunity to make an impact. Until then, he’s likely to be no more than a name at the bottom of the depth chart.
A combo block is a type of double-team block in which one of the blockers will move up to the second level for a second defender (often a linebacker) once the initial defender has been controlled. Combo blocks are often referred to by the two players involved in the block: ace (center-guard), deuce (guard-tackle), and trey (tackle-tight end). ↩