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.