METAIRIE, La. -- Vonn Bell was a second-round draft pick in 2016. Roman Harper was a second-round draft pick in 2006. But the two safeties formed a close bond with each other during their one year together with the New Orleans Saints that has continued even with Harper no longer on the roster.
“That’s my guy,” Bell said. “I texted him the other day. I felt a little down, but he picked me back up. We watched film together.
“There’s things we take from this game, relationships that we build much more than football. That’s a friendship for life.”
Bell, 22, and Harper, 34, actually met before the Saints drafted Bell out of Ohio State last year when they trained at the same place in the offseason. But they really bonded when the Saints re-signed Harper last offseason to be that type of mentor for a young secondary. Bell referred to himself as Harper’s “little brother.”
Bell said he has tried to lean on a lot of veteran safeties that he has met through their “close-knit” NFL circle -- including Eric Berry, Tyrann Mathieu and fellow former Ohio State safety Kurt Coleman.
“But really Roman ... Roman for sure,” Bell said.
Bell has more of a veteran aura around him in Year 2 with the Saints after making 14 starts last year. And though the 5-foot-11, 205-pounder was known mostly for his coverage ability in college, he has been flashing an enforcer mentality throughout training camp. He and veteran tight end Coby Fleener were developing a noticeable rivalry on the field that led to a couple of exchanges early in camp.
“I feel like I’ve been able to do that,” Bell said of the “enforcer” part of the safety job description -- including big hits in the open field. “I just want to make impact plays, those splash plays that Coach is looking for. ... Get the juices going with guys and guys flying around.”
The Saints have made it a point to make Bell and strong safety Kenny Vaccaro more interchangeable this year -- with Vaccaro spending more time than ever dropping back as a free safety so offenses can’t recognize what alignment they’re in. Bell said he is all for it.
“I think I’ve got all the traits. So I’m not just gonna really shy to one side,” Bell said. “I just want to make plays.”
Bell had his share of highs and lows as a rookie, but he performed well after replacing former Saints veteran Jairus Byrd in the starting lineup early in the season.
He finished the year with 87 tackles, two forced fumbles, four pass defenses and a sack. And according to Pro Football Focus, Bell was one of only two safeties in the NFL who played at least 200 run snaps and missed zero tackles vs. the run. (The other was Green Bay Packers Pro Bowler Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.)
The Saints added some impressive depth to their safety position this year by re-signing versatile veteran Rafael Bush in free agency and drafting ball-hawking center fielder Marcus Williams in the second round. All of them should play significant roles as the Saints use a lot of three-safety formations.
But Bell’s Year 2 growth could quietly be as vital to the secondary’s improvement as any of the other changes the team has made on the back end.