METAIRIE, La. – I have written a lot about the New Orleans Saints’ strong rookie class over the past week. Michael Thomas has already broken out with one of the most productive seasons by a rookie receiver in NFL history. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins also flashed star potential after recovering from a broken fibula. And Nigerian-born defensive tackle David Onyemata has shown diamond-in-the-rough potential.
It’s harder to label safety Vonn Bell since he probably experienced the widest range of highs and lows. But there is no doubting how much valuable experience the second-round pick from Ohio State gained while playing the most snaps of anyone in New Orleans’ 2016 draft class (54 snaps per game).
Bell played in all 16 games and started 14 of them -- first briefly supplanting veteran Jairus Byrd early in the season, then playing alongside Byrd when the Saints began using a three-safety alignment as their primary defense.
The 5-foot-11, 205-pounder certainly flashed impressive potential at times, with 87 tackles, two forced fumbles, a sack and four passes defended. But he also got burned in deep coverage or in the open field a handful of times.
“We’re going to need to see a little bit more consistency from him, and yet he’ll have plenty of opportunities to do that,” Saints coach Sean Payton said while giving a quick rundown of the rookie class last week.
Bell’s emergence could make the Saints consider parting ways with Byrd this offseason, since Byrd is due $7.5 million in salary and bonuses. More likely, the Saints will try to work out a pay cut with Byrd to continue running a three-safety system that includes Bell and Kenny Vaccaro.
The first thing defensive coordinator Dennis Allen pointed to when describing Bell was his versatility – which isn’t surprising, considering Bell was sort of a hybrid safety/cornerback type in college.
“I think he’s done a really good job for a rookie,” Allen said. “He came in, he was a free safety. Then he’s played strong safety. He’s moved out to the nickel position. He’s played a lot of different spots for us, and for a rookie to be able to handle that volume of information, that volume of different job descriptions of the things we’ve asked him to do, I think is actually somewhat amazing.
“I think he’s grown a lot. All of these different experiences that he’s dealt with this year is really going to serve him well as he moves forward throughout his career. I think he has a bright future, still has a lot to learn. But the great thing about him is he comes in every day willing to work. He’s like a sponge, man, just wants to soak up as much football as he can. He’s been really fun to be around.”
Bell has also had a great wealth of knowledge to assist him in his position group, with guys like Byrd, Vaccaro and Roman Harper.
"I think [my rookie year] went well,” Bell said. “Still learning, especially from those guys that I lean on to. The game is starting to come to me, it's slowing down very much. [The mindset is] just go out there and execute and have fun. You're here for a reason, your playmaking and ability will take care of itself."