Is David Bell the Steal of the 2022 NFL Draft?

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Consider the 3.5 seconds between when the quarterback takes the snap and when his receiver catches a pass. The receiver-cornerback battle is one of the most pivotal aspects of any given game, yet it exists largely off-screen, taking place down the field, beyond the scope of the quarterback-centric broadcast camera angle. Only the end result is truly visible. Whereas the goodness of any given receiver is easily representable in box scores and highlights, the how and why behind that goodness is considerably trickier to capture. 

On any given play, a receiver must process and solve dozens of micro-problems—Which way are the corner’s feet shaded? How much space is the corner giving? How is the defense responding to the route? Plus, they have to do it without thinking and running at full speed—while one of the most athletic people in the world tries to stop them. Mastery of football is certainly a physical endeavor, but it also speaks of a divine dialogue between the body and the mind. Call it weaponized proprioception, the ability to grok how the movement of one body can be leveraged against the movement of another. 

More than perhaps any other NFL Draft prospect in recent memory, former Purdue receiver David Bell exists within this rupture of understanding between the physical and metaphysical. Over 11 games last year, he caught 93 passes for 1,286 yards, beating out more highly touted prospects like Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave and Jahan Dotson to win the Big Ten’s Richter-Howard Award, which is given to the conference’s best receiver. As the star of the winningest Purdue team in 15 years, Bell catalyzed upsets of two top-five teams, hanging 11 catches and 240 yards on then-#2 Iowa and 11 catches for 217 yards on then-#5 Michigan State.  

Despite Bell's historic productivity, draftniks consider him a b-list prospect in next week’s NFL Draft because the exact nature of his goodness is so opaque. For starters, he’s not particularly imposing as far as NFL players go: at 6’0, 212 pounds, Bell isn’t a muscled-up power forward in the red zone. Nor is he a twitchy speedster: his 4.65 second 40 yard dash ranked in the 10th percentile of all receivers and his 20 yard shuttle run was all the way down in the 2nd percentile. Watching him, there’s no obvious reason for why he’s so unguardable besides the basic fact that nobody is able to guard him. 

“I know I’m not the fastest or the strongest,” Bell told ONE37pm as he prepared for the NFL Draft, “so I like to be real technical and get creative with the ways I get off the line of scrimmage and find ways to get open downfield.”

In a deep, talented receiver class, Bell is unparalleled in the exactness and polish of his game. He snaps off sudden, angular routes, masking his intentions before breaking into open space; ESPN rated him as the best route runner in the draft. To wit, his hands are probably even better than his feet. “My hands,” Bell said, “are definitely my biggest strength.”

Still, Bell has lost some luster in the wake of his performance at the combine. After his disappointing showing, he precipitously tumbled down draft boards—or at least the public-facing draft boards. Once considered a potential first-rounder, Bell is now squarely a Day Two selection; he expects his draft range to be somewhere between the second and fourth round. But if it bothers Bell that the first 50 or so picks will be littered with receivers who are patently not as good as him, he’s too pragmatic to ever betray those feelings. 

“Everything happens for a reason,” Bell said matter-of-factly, “and everyone has their own opinion. I’ve been overlooked my whole life. 

Even though I went to a Big 10 school, Purdue as a whole really didn’t get that much respect. But what we did last year, and what I did individually, definitely put everyone on notice. Wherever I land, just know that team got a steal—I’m going to bring that work and show why I’m the best receiver in the draft.”  

While Bell is characteristically sanguine and at-ease about his draft stock, the backwardness of the situation isn’t lost on Jayson West, Bell’s former football coach at Warren Central High School in Indianapolis. 

“People fall in love with that silly race, but there’s always been a special category of guys who are really, really good at playing wide receiver,”  West explained. “We used to call David the ‘Jerry Rice of high school football’ because he’d always be open even if you couldn’t explain why. He didn’t separate himself during the 40 yard dash or whatever, but he’s going to separate himself in everything else on and off the field because that’s the kind of person he is.”

To hear Bell tell it, the process of becoming really good at playing wide receiver has been equal parts labor and love. As anybody in his orbit would attest, Bell is a hard worker, the kind of improvement-obsessed, competitive sicko that the NFL loves. 

“Just looking from my freshman year at Purdue until now,” Bell said, “you can see a tremendous change from the work and the grind—sometimes I look at old tape and I have no idea how I used to get open or catch stuff. I want to be the best at my position and perfect my craft. And it’s not there yet, but if I’m shooting for perfection each and every day, I know I can progressively get one step closer.”

Beyond merely drilling footwork into muscle memory, Bell is a gridiron autodidact, who taught himself the finer points of playing football while hanging out with his friends. 

“I think a lot of who I am as a player just comes from playing in a backyard with my homies,” Bell recalled. “I was in second grade playing against fifth and sixth graders. It got rough out there.If you weren’t good, you weren’t stepping in the game. I had to figure out ways to hang with the big dogs. 

According to Bell, the neighborhood was rife with kids who would’ve made the NFL if they had stuck with the sport. “When Santonio Holmes got his two feet down on that catch to win the Super Bowl,” Bell said, “I remember how the whole hood would try to make catches on the sideline and be like Santonio. I’m twenty-one now and there are little things like that I’ve been doing since I was seven or eight years old, so it’s almost like second nature by now.”  

As such, Indianapolis—the Far Eastside of Indianapolis—is an inextricable part of the larger David Bell story. Despite maintaining a low national profile (Bell’s Instagram has a grand total of five posts), Bell is a star in his city.

Stories of his athletic accomplishments are wonderfully Paul Bunyan-esque. By the time he was in third grade, buzz started to spread around the city about a kid who was racking up five or six touchdowns a game. At 14 years-old, he became one of the first freshmen to start on Warren Central’s varsity team, leading the team in receiving yards after exclusively playing quarterback in middle school. In February 2018, Bell led Warren’s basketball team to a state championship, hitting a buzzer-beater over future NBA lottery pick Romeo Langford in the finals to cap off an undefeated season.That fall, Bell starred on Warren’s football team as they embarked on their own undefeated state-champion campaign, which became the basis for David Bell: A Far Eastside Story, a mini-documentary with nearly 25,000 YouTube views.

“I originally was just going to make something about the team,” said Juwann Nelson, the director of A Far Eastside Story and Bell’s Warren Central teammate in 2015, “but David was killing every game and I realized that he was the real story. It wasn’t even about him getting recruited by big schools or potentially going to the NFL. Locally, we already felt like he was a once in a lifetime player.”

Somehow, Bell’s former coach West is even more effusive: “He is one of the best I’ve ever seen. You won’t find anybody who has a bad word to say about him.”

In turn, Bell derives strength from his community. He carries his hometown’s heart on his sleeve: the number three on his jersey as an homage to Dijon Anderson, a former Warren Central teammate and close friend who died in a shooting in 2018. Most of all, he credits his neighborhood with helping him develop a mindset that sets him apart from the legion of other snub-hungry athletes who are constantly in search of another chip to put on their shoulder.

“I think it’s unique to have a support system that’s bigger than just your family or your friends,” Bell said. “People will come up to me just to let me know that they respect and appreciate what I'm doing. And if I’m not successful in the NFL, I think those people would still be proud of me for getting a degree. It’s really special to feel that support as a person, not just a player.”  

To be sure, Bell still isn’t the most beloved member of his own family on the Far Eastside—that title would go to Greg Butler, Bell’s 64 year-old grandfather. “My family has been here for a long time,” Bell said with a laugh, “my grandpa is still more popular than I am.”

In the winter of his senior year at Warren, he committed to Purdue, rebuffing offers from perennial Big 10 powerhouses like Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State and the hoopla that comes with it, in order to stay closer to home.

“My grandmother uses a wheelchair,” Bell said. “but she's still been to almost every single game, whether it's elementary, middle school, high school. I wanted to give her the opportunity to be able to watch me play in one of the best conferences, if not the best conference, at the highest level and for us to experience it together.”

At Purdue, he was part of a transformative group of players alongside Rondale Moore and George Karlaftis who revitalized a dormant program. When Bell was a freshman, Purdue went 4-8. By his third and final season, they cracked the top 25 for the first time since 2007. 

Although Bell’s defining quality seems to be a monastic devotion to football and decency, talk to him long enough and a quiet, earned confidence begins to peek through. In conversation, he’s just as soft-spoken and thoughtful as advertised, but it’s clear that he’s propelled by an unwavering sense of belief in himself. He carries himself with a subtle charisma that makes his pride feel like prophecy. When he predicted that Purdue would upset Michigan State last season, he then compiled 217 yards to ensure that it happened. For nearly his entire life, Bell knew he was going to be an NFL player and he’s now on the precipice of making good on that.

I mean, I expected all this to happen since I was little,” Bell said, “so it’s not hard to avoid getting caught up in the hype. Obviously, I’m happy about it and excited, but I understand that I have an end goal in mind of being one of the best.” 

Similarly, on the field, he’s a “silent assassin,” according to Coach West. Bell won’t talk much trash, but when he has something to say, his words cut deep: “He’s good at trash-talk, but in a good way,” Coach West said. “He’s played high-level AAU and seven-on-seven and those guys are always talking, so he holds his own very well, but you’d never know because he’s so quiet.” 

His favorite players to study are, fittingly, bruisers like Keenan Allen or Allen Robinson, but then also Stevie Johnson, a Wario-level showboat. Underneath the surface of Bell’s placid, attention-deflecting demeanor is a nuclear core of self-assurance. He’s soft-spoken, but will gladly talk shit when the time comes. He’s a humble guy with such certainty in himself that he envisioned NFL success since grade school; he’s a prodigy and he knows it, not that he’d ever admit it.

In this sense, within any feature or profile about David Bell, there are actually two separate stories running along parallel tracks: Bell is maybe the best athlete in the history of Indiana amateur sports, a singularly dominant force at every level of competition who’s been predestined for stardom since grade school; Bell is an unassuming underdog who overcame tragedy through grit and strength of will. It’s not that he defies expectations—it’s that he splits the difference between them. 

“I’m underrated, but I’m not,” said Bell. A brief pause, then, a grin. “Everybody in Indianapolis knows who I am.”

Editor's Note: David Bell is represented by VaynerSports, a sports agency owned by Gary Vaynerchuk.

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