BGA: Scouting Kahlil Bell

Bent , TheJetsBlog.com

Earlier this week, the Jets signed free agent running back Kahlil Bell. Jets fans might not know too much about Bell, so I’ve been looking at game footage in detail to investigate what he could bring to the table.

Bell spent his first three years in the NFL with the Bears before being waived in August. Chicago re-signed him temporarily early in the season but didn’t make much of an impact and was released four weeks later. He hasn’t played for any other NFL teams, although he did attend Vikings camp as a rookie. With both Bilal Powell and Joe McKnight injured and recent practice squad addition John Griffin presumably still familiarizing himself with the playbook, the Jets needed a healthy tailback to back up Shonn Greene.

After the jump, I look in detail at footage from Bell’s time in the league to evaluate some of his strengths and weaknesses.

Who is Kahlil Bell?

Bell had a pretty good college career at UCLA and was at one time projected to be a future mid-round pick, but a torn ACL in 2007 took its toll and he went undrafted in 2009 having run just a 4.74 forty at the combine and failing to improve on that at his Pro Day.

After failing to make the Vikings roster, Bell got a spot on the Bears practice squad in his rookie year and was activated late in the season following an injury to Garrett Wolfe. His impact was immediate, as he rushed for an NFL record 72-yard gain on his first NFL carry. That play, which can be seen here gives an indication of his burst, but also perhaps a lack of breakaway speed in the open field. Bell would finish the season with 220 yards at an average of 5.5 yards per carry, although after that initial big gain, he would only average 3.8 yards per carry.

In 2010, he didn’t play although he remained on the Bears active roster all season. It doesn’t appear that he was injured, other than a minor injury in preseason which may have contributed to him falling behind the special teams demon Wolfe on the depth chart again. The only time he made any headlines was when he got into a fight with teammate Chester Taylor in practice in December.

A solid preseason in 2011 saw him regain his spot, although he then suffered an ankle injury in the preseason finale and he underwhelmed in the first two games, carrying 11 times for 23 yards, although he did have two big plays negated by penalties. Thereafter, he would only play on special teams until late in the season when Matt Forte was injured. However the last five games of the year saw his most promising stretch as an NFL player, as he averaged 4.6 yards per carry, had at least one run of 13 yards or more in each of the five games and recorded 19 of his 21 career receptions. His most outstanding performance saw him rush for 121 yards and catch four passes for 38 yards against the Packers. He also scored his first NFL touchdown on a 25-yard catch against Seattle.

In 2012, he was originally given a one year contract for $1.26m but when he found himself third on the depth chart in August, the Bears asked him to take a paycut (to $700,000) and he refused so they waived him. His return this September saw him carry the ball 10 times for 20 yards in an uninspiring return to the lineup and the following week he carried the ball just twice and false started once in four snaps as a back up.

The Numbers

Four seasons
22 games
Three starts, all in 2011
131 carries, 589 yards, no touchdowns (4.5 ypc)
21 catches, 148 yards, one touchdown
81% catch rate, one drop (in 2009)
Three fumbles, one as a receiver, one lost
17 broken tackles, including four as a receiver
Two kick returns for 45 yards (25 longest)
Seven special teams tackles, one missed tackle
Two special teams penalties
One offensive penalty committed
Five 20+ yard plays (one as a receiver)
One 40+ yard play

Observations

Based on all the regular season footage I watched, here was my take on what Bell brings to the table, divided into categories:

Usage - Bell was used almost exclusively as a classic tailback. He motioned out wide or into the slot on occasion, as any other running back would, but rarely ever more than a couple of times per game. With the Bears not really a team that has a third down specialist (since Forte is a three-down back), he received plenty of reps on passing downs in those games where he started or got plenty of playing time. While the Bears did use some zone blocking last year, their scheme is a lot more similar to the Jets’ system than Houston’s is, so it hopefully won’t take Bell as long to adjust to the scheme as it apparently did for Jonathan Grimes. In fact, the Bears run a lot of the plays that the Jets have been running this year under Sparano and Bell had some good moments on those plays.

One way he wasn’t used much was in a short yardage role. He only had four carries on 3rd or 4th and three or less and was stuffed on two of these. He has also failed to rush for a touchdown despite getting a handful of carries inside the five yard line.

Running Ability – While Bell’s yards-per-carry average is skewed slightly by that huge gain on his first ever carry, it is worth noting that he did have that spell of games in 2011 where he was consistently averaging comfortably better than four yards per carry. Having said that, his numbers have been underwhelming so far this year, he gained 18 on one play and another 10 on a 3rd and 19 draw play, but other than that he racked up just four yards on his other 10 carries for an average of less than three.

Bell is a patient runner with pretty good vision. Most of his best runs saw him following his blocker and then making a decisive and well-timed cut and he doesn’t dance about, doing a good job of getting his momentum going upfield and identifying and hitting cutback lanes. While he lacks that breakaway speed he does have a good initial burst and hits the hole hard, enabling him to get to the second level on occasion. He also has some slipperyness to his game, which enables him to avoid or break tackles. Bell was listed at 212 as a rookie, but bulked up to over 220 with the Bears. There were a few good examples of him running over defensive backs at the second level or driving the pile for a few extra yardage, so he does have power.

In his first season, he averaged a disappointing 2.1 yards per carry after contact according to PFF, but in 2011 he averaged an above-average 2.6 yards per carry after contact, helped by his performance over the last two games where he broke 10 tackles.

Pass Protection – Bell has stayed in to pass block on 67 plays in his NFL career and has given up one sack and three pressures. While he does make a good attempt to get in front of the pass rusher and anchor himself, this can sometimes mean he is prone to the pass rusher making a quick move to get around him. On the sack he gave up, that’s what happened as Chad Greenway came on a delayed blitz, although it only resulted in a sack because of pressure from the outside causing the quarterback to step up. On each of the pressures he gave up, he at least got enough of the man to prevent the sack, so he was never really beaten cleanly. One of these was a big completion and one enabled the quarterback to get to the outside on a scramble, but the other forced a throw away on third down. He should hopefully be able to do at least an adequate job if called upon to do this with the Jets.

Receiving Threat - Bell showed some ability to be a pass-catching threat out of the backfield in the last four games of 2011 as he caught at least four passes in each game, including a 25-yard touchdown against Seattle. Most of the receptions he made were dumpoffs or checkdowns although he did turn some of these into decent gains by making yardage after the catch. The only exceptions were the touchdown against Seattle (where he ran downfield and then across the field easily beating the linebacker and making a catch near the pylon) and two others where he ran quick slants (once after having motioned out wide).

Hands - He did drop a pass as a rookie but hasn’t done since. That was on the play before his big 72-yard run and wasn’t entirely his fault as he lined up outside and the quarterback threw behind him to the outside with a defensive back hitting him as the ball arrived to jar it loose. Since most of his catches were checkdowns and dumpoffs, he didn’t really show much in the way of spectacular catches but he seemed to catch the simpler ones cleanly enough.

One major concern would be fumbles, as he had three of those in the last two games of 2011 and clearly wasn’t protecting the ball too well on any of them. As it turned out, the Bears recovered two of them anyway, including one in the end zone for a score, but he did lose a bad one inside his own 20.

Special Teams – With five solo tackles and two penalties to his name on special teams, Bell is not renowned as much of a contributor on that unit. In fact, that’s the main reason he fell behind Garrett Wolfe on the depth chart. Wolfe is an outstanding gunner, so there were no doubt games where Bell was inactive due to Wolfe being needed in that role. However, Bell didn’t do a bad job of getting downfield and making tackles as a punt protector. The Jets obviously have that position locked down for the foreseeable future though!

Attitude – There wasn’t much to see on the film in respect of chippyness, blown assignments or demonstrative behavior from Bell, although he does have a few off-field concerns. Other than the fight with Taylor mentioned above (which was said to have been “brewing for some time”), he was also suspended in college for two games, reportedly for “being a bad teammate”. Also, you may or may not think the fact he refused to take a paycut and lost his job as a result is a bad sign. Despite these concerns, Bell seemed to play extremely hard and gave an insight into his drive and ambition last year:

It was never my goal to be on a practice squad or be a third-string running back. But good things come to those who wait.

Conclusions

Any move you make at this stage of the season, especially when it looks like you’re already out of contention, is likely to be a low risk move. It’s certainly true that there have been examples of running backs being signed off the street at this point in a season and going on to contribute and find a home.

Less than a year ago, people were writing about what a Bell’s bright NFL future, so maybe the Bears gave up on him too soon. In fact, with the Jets’ running backs having struggled for most of the season, it might not take much for Bell to provide them with an upgrade.

Based on what I saw, Bell has the ability to execute some of the plays that Shonn Greene has been struggling with over the first part of the season. However, his performance this season shows that if the run blocking ahead of him isn’t good, he’s no more likely to produce that Greene is. It would make a lot of sense for the Jets to give Bell every chance to show that he can be a keeper. This might also motivate Greene too, so hopefully the Jets will benefit one way or another.