SI 50, Nos. 28–27: Will Fuller and Vonn Bell
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With the 2016 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to finish the process of getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. To that end, Doug Farrar has assembled his own Big Board, with his top 50 players.
The SI 50 uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class, and why they’re slotted where they are. As we continue through the first round of players, it’s time to take a closer look at one of the best deep threats in this class and a defender seemingly engineered to reduce the effectiveness of such players.
28. Will Fuller, WR, Notre Dame
Height: 6' 0" Weight: 186
Bio: No matter the era, the NFL always prizes receivers who can take the top off the field and become a true threat on every play. Fuller fits that description as well as anyone in this draft class. According to NFL.com, 27% of his catches went for more than 25 yards in 2015, and that’s not a one-year fluke.
Fuller gave the Fighting Irish a taste of what was to come as a freshman back in 2013, when he had six catches for 160 yards and a touchdown—an incredible 26.7 yards per catch average. The following season—his first as a starter—he didn’t disappoint, hauling in 76 catches for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns. After a junior season in which he added 62 catches for 1,258 yards and another 14 touchdowns, Fuller decided to declare for the 2016 draft after originally deciding to stay for his senior season.
“Just with the year we had, a lot of injuries, for a healthy career I just wanted to get out of there while I was healthy and still put up good numbers this year,” he said at the combine. “I thought that was at a good time.”
It’s always a good time for a player with Fuller’s tape and experience to enter the NFL, and he’ll likely be rewarded for that decision with a first-round selection.
Strengths: Track-level speedster with the acceleration to jet out of breaks, and the downfield extra gear to get past any kind of coverage and take the top off a defense at any time. Can regain his top speed instantly if he has to slow down to keep up with an underthrow. Draws contact penalties from defenders who simply can’t keep up with his speed. Fluid runner who maintains his body control through his paces, and has a special ability to accelerate even further at the catch. Sinks into his breaks effectively to sell an outside route as he moves upfield on posts and seam routes. Puts outside cornerbacks to sleep with foot-fakes, then blows right past them. Willing blocker who walls off defenders pretty well when his technique is straight. Understands how to plant under and around zone coverage on curls and in and out cuts. Excellent boundary receiver. Tracks passes well, especially the deep ball—he keeps his line as he’s bringing the ball in overhead, and does so with bodies all around him. Underrated strength over the middle and on contested catches.
Weaknesses: Thin-limbed receiver who doesn’t present much of a threat against contact after the catch and is better-served as an outside receiver than as a slot guy. Was negated by Clemson’s pattern-read coverage and struggles to maintain route integrity against more physical press receivers. Beats press at the line more through speed than power and leverage. Struggles with body-catching and focus drops. Needs to develop a fuller and more refined route tree.
Conclusion: Though Fuller isn’t a completely developed player yet, he’s going to get serious reps in his rookie season and beyond because, quite simply, he’s going to be very difficult for defenses to handle. There are several NFL offenses short of such a receiver, and given his potential to be great, Fuller might just find himself drafted earlier than many pundits expect.
Pro Comparison: Torrey Smith, 49ers (second round, Ravens, 2011, Maryland)
27. Vonn Bell, S, Ohio State
Height: 5' 11" Weight: 199
Bio: The No. 4 prospect in the state of Georgia in his senior season, Bell was a highly-prized recruit who passed on Alabama and other major schools to join the Buckeyes. He made an immediate impact as a slot defender in his freshman season, picking off Clemson’s Tajh Boyd in the Orange Bowl (he also amassed seven solo tackles in that game). Bell missed 2014 spring camp with a knee injury, but hit the ground running in his sophomore campaign with six interceptions, six passes defensed and 56 total tackles. His 92 total tackles marked the highest total for an Ohio State safety since Mike Doss put up 107 in ’02, and six of those tackles came in Ohio State’s BCS Championship win over Oregon.
Bell solidified his status as one of the best defensive backs in this draft class last season in which he picked off two more passes, added nine passes defensed and racked up 43 solo tackles. When Urban Meyer said that Bell is as good as any safety prospect he’s ever had, the tape backs that assertion up. The only question is where Bell will be most successful in the NFL.
Interestingly enough, Bell was very open and honest at his combine media session about his primary liability as a player: a relative inability to stop the run.
“Sometimes you get lazy, but as I’ve seen on film, sitting down with some scouts, they was tearing me up a little bit,” he said. “It’s something to fix, it’s not hard to fix. Just got to run to the ball a little harder... It just happens, man. Young guy, thinking the world [of himself] or whatever, it just happens … it happens.”
Add that desire for improvement to what Bell’s already bringing to the field, and there may be Pro Bowl potential here.
Strengths: Full-field defender who closes quickly to the run and works from the deep half to the slot seamlessly. Plays deep seam and post coverage as a cornerback would, with excellent pattern recognition and get-up speed to keep up with faster receivers. Brings legitimate man coverage skills to the field with his explosiveness. Keeps his eye on the ball throughout those deep tracking routes to avoid collisions and penalties—he’s clearly a technician. Closes from sideline to sideline with impressive speed and is never really out of a tackle if he’s playing deep and chasing. Mirrors very well as receivers work to run by him. Has very impressive recovery and closing speed at all areas of the field. Ideal center fielder for any team looking for a fearless defender against speed receivers. As a slot defender, he brings an excellent sense of open space and receiver movement. Ballhawk with the attitude that the throw belongs to him as much as it belongs to the receiver. Has legitimate NFL potential as an island and boundary defender.
Weaknesses: Slight frame and less-than-ideal height puts him as much in a projection as a slot defender or spot cornerback as it does as a safety at the NFL level. Not a thumper as a tackler at all, and loses the battle outright with bigger opponents at times. Struggles to get off blocks too often. Tries too many pile-on and ankle tackles. Delay in play recognition at times leaves him shortsighted underneath, and he then relies too often on recovery speed. May struggle in the NFL against bigger receivers who play the slot more often than they do in college. Will need help against bigger tight ends.
Conclusion: From Tyrann Mathieu to Kenny Vaccaro to Jimmie Ward, the NFL has learned to prize the multi-position safety as never before, and those prospects who can excel at every position from deep safety to outside press corner to slot corner are especially valuable when attacking modern multiple offenses. Bell is classified as a strong safety, but he’s really a variable chess piece with the ability to make a defense better in several dimensions. Perhaps the best comparison for Bell is Malcolm Jenkins, who has played both corner and safety as a starter and has become an outstanding movable pass defender for the Eagles. It’s in this type of space that Bell will be at his best at the next level.
Pro Comparison: Malcolm Jenkins, Eagles (first round, Saints, 2009, Ohio State)