Can Le’Veon become a Bell cow?

Michigan State’s star running back Le’Veon Bell rushed for a career-high 266 yards on 35 carries (7.4 avg.) against Minnesota last week, in a vital 26-10 win which clinched a Bowl spot for the Spartans. The junior also ran in his 11th touchdown of the season, in what may well prove to have been his final game at Spartan Stadium, with the NFL calling.

As only a two star recruit, Bell was far from heavily recruited coming out of high school. In fact, he received little interest from BCS-level schools, while the few who did recruit him only did so with the intention of playing the Groveport, Ohio native at safety. Bell eventually signed with one of the first schools to offer him both a scholarship and the chance to play at his preferred position of running back, Michigan State, a move which now looks like a piece of recruiting brilliance by the folks in East Lansing.

Bell spent his first two years with the Spartans splitting carries in the backfield but when finally handed the reins fulltime this past season, took the opportunity and quite literally ran with it. Thriving in his new role at the centre of the offense, Bell has been one of the breakout stars of the 2012 college campaign, rushing for 1,648 yards and 11 touchdowns on 350 carries, including three 200+ yard games against Boise State, Indiana and the previously mentioned Minnesota in the final regular season game.

Having firmly established himself as one of the Big Ten’s most dangerous offensive weapons, Bell was duly named to the all-conference first team recently and now faces the same tough decision as many other highly touted underclassman: return for his senior year or take his chances and enter the draft. The junior is reportedly considering his options carefully but, for the moment, it seems likely he’ll make the latter choice and declare, taking advantage of his rising stock and a relatively weak running back class compared to previous years.

How does the Spartan’s running back stack up in prospect terms?

At 6-2, 244 lbs, Bell is built like the prototypical power back but also shows a canny ability to get away from defenders when in space. He has an intriguing blend of size, power and speed, with the footwork to make would-be tacklers miss, as well as the strength to lower his pads and bulldoze his way up the middle, displaying a great knack for gaining those tough yards after contact.

Furthermore, Bell’s football instincts are second to none: he’s a patient runner, with excellent vision and shows no lack of desire when blocking, which he does so with solid technique. Though never asked to feature extensively in the passing game, Bell has also displayed good hands in the past and there shouldn’t be any questions concerning his all-round game – a simple north-south runner he is not.

Bell has been playing in a pro-style offense for the past three seasons at Michigan State, which should stand him in good stead for making that transition to the next level. Nevertheless, there still remain several questions surrounding his ability to adapt to the demands of the NFL. The second-leading rusher in the nation has feasted upon yardage against weaker defenses in 2012, while often being stifled when facing stronger opposition, and, much like the questions being asked of Wisconsin’s record-breaking back Montee Ball, there is a belief that his lofty production does not reflect his true value.

However, that argument can be countered by the fact that the Spartan’s relative lack of talent on offense has allowed opposing defenses to easily key in on the run game, while Bell has not been helped either by the play of a shaky offensive line.

Bell’s acceleration is arguably his one clear area of weakness, as he does not appear to display that explosive burst out of the backfield which most elite running back prospects possess. However, much in the way that former undrafted free agent Arian Foster has been able to succeed in the NFL, Bell’s excellent feet and vision should see him overcome that deficiency. Some in the past have likened the Spartans running back to LaGarrette Blount and/or Daniel Thomas but such comparisons seem largely unfair at this stage.

Bell is currently projected to run in the 4.55-4.65 range when it comes to the 40, which, though far from awful, certainly won’t do his draft stock any favours. However, should he time better come the new year and impress in workouts, he could well find himself vaulting his way up draft boards, particularly during a year in which there are few prospects considered genuine franchise-type backs.

For all the talk that the running back position in the NFL has been wholly devalued over the past few seasons, teams like the Texans have proven that an efficient ground game is still pivotal to success and there undoubtedly remains a firm desire to seek out that dynamic, game-changing player at the position. Bell clearly looks the part and if some team is convinced that he can be their ‘bell cow’ runner then he could easily go much higher than currently projected.

Best Case: Matt Forte

Worst Case: Tony Hunt (former Philadelphia Eagles)

Projected Round: Late 2nd/Early 3rd

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