Progression. As defined by the official Webster's Dictionary, it's a word that means the process of developing or moving gradually towards a more advanced state. In simpler terms, it means getting better and better and showing notable improvement at doing something well over a passage of time.
And it's a phrase that accurately describes the current status of veteran Saints safery Vonn Bell; who in just 2 more months from now, will enter into his 4th NFL season and now does so as the leader of the Black and Gold's secondary — as he and the rest of the defense try to help the franchise reach even greater heights in the upcoming 2019 NFL Season.
Despite a slow start last season, the 24-year old Chattanooga, Tennessee native showed a propensity for making big plays for the defense; as he displayed a knack for relentlessly attacking opposing NFL offensive backfields as the 2018 NFL Season went on; and eventually he became the team's designated leader in the secondary while often going one-on-one in pass coverage against some of the League's premier tight ends and wide receivers in the slot.
Originally selected by the Saints in the 2nd Round (the 61st overall selection) of the 2016 NFL Draft out of Ohio State University, Bell put himself on the map originally as a teenager when he and his family moved south to the state of Georgia; where he transferred from Chattanooga Central High School to Ridgeland High School in Rossville, Georgia; just across the Tennessee-Georgia state line and approximately an hour northwest of Atlanta,
It would be there in Bell's senior year of high school during the 2012 Season, where he led Ridgeland to the Georgia Class AAAA state championship but lost to Sandy Creek 41-10. But despite the loss. Bell was rated by both Rivals.com and Scout.com as a five-star recruit and was ranked as the number two safety in the country.
Bell would then choose to attend the legendary and storied Ohio State Buckeyes program in 2013, where he played in all 13 games as a backup freshman, but didn't actually make his first college career start until January 3, 2014 in the Discover Orange Bowl; where he recorded his first collegiate interception. Bell became a full-time starter for the Buckeyes his sophomore season in 2014. as he ended up playing in all 15 games while recording 91 tackles and a Big Ten Conference-leading six interceptions.
It was right after that 2014 Season In the 2015 College Football Playoff National Championship victory over the University of Oregon, where Bell got the full and undivided attention of NFL scouts, as he recorded six tackles and a sack. He remained with the Buckeyes program for his 2015 junior season, but declared himself eligible for the 2016 Draft, and ultimately was chosen by the Saints.
Bell saw immediate action as a rookie that year. as he started in 14 of New Orleans'16 regular season games and finished 2nd overall on the team with 83 tackles. The following season in 2017, Bell appeared to have benefited greatly from the valuable NFL game experience that he had gained as a rookie;, and in his 2nd NFL season finished with 83 combined tackles (62 solo), 4.5 sacks, and two pass deflections in 16 games. along with 10 games started,
In fact, the very good folks over at analytics website Pro Football Focus gave Bell an overall grade of 68.7, which ranking him 65th among all safeties League-wide that year, as the Saints rebounded from three straight (7-9) losing seasons to finish with a (11-5) win-loss record and the 2017 NFC South Division Championship.
However. to say that Bell got off to somewhat of a "shaky start" last season in 2018 would be quite the understatement; as the 6-foot, 208 pound versatile but yet hard-hitting defender performed poorly throughout Training Camp and the Pre-Season; and as a direct result / consequence of that effort, actually lost his starting role to veteran free agent Kurt Coleman once the 2018 NFL Season began.
But as Saints fans will recall: the ENTIRE Saints secondary got off to a bad start at the beginning of the 2018 Season, as they yielded a whopping 530 yards of total offense to Tampa Bay Buccaneers journeyman and 14th-year veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick; who absolutely TORCHED the Saints secondary in what was a complete ass-whipping of monumental proportions in the home opener at the Superdome.
But to his credit, Bell was able to rebound strongly and began showing the same form that he had demonstrated the season prior. As fate would have it. a reversal of fortune would allow Bell to regain his previous starter's role by mid-season; as he took over the majority of defensive snaps and thus leading the coaching staff to ultimately bench Coleman, who many considered to be another recent free agent "bust" for the organization (Coleman eventually was released after the season in February).
In all, Bell finished last season with a career high in total tackles (88) and individual solo tackles (62), which ranked him 2nd overall on the team and 1st among all of the Saints DB's. The Saints defense would steadily improve throughout the 2018 Season, and it was Bell who helped lead the way in the secondary; and notably earning himself a grade of (88.2) from Pro Football Focus (PFF) in run defense — and placing him at #3 overall among all NFL safeties.
And remarkably, even though Bell has yet to record a single interception in pass coverage in his first 3 NFL seasons, PFF still had him graded at 68.3 overall at defending the pass, which ranked him 39th overall put of 67 safeties League-wide. Bell's overall grade (against both the run and the pass combined) from PFF during the 2018 Season was (75.3); which placed him 27th out of 101 defensive backs at the strong / free safety positions.
Now as Training Camp rapidly approaches in advance of the upcoming 2019 NFL Season, Bell will be entering his contract year, and given that he's finished either 1st or 2nd on the team in tackles in each of his three seasons, could be in line for a big pay-day next off-season.
Bell as of right now will count $1.26 million against the cap in 2019, and he has gotten better with each passing season up to this point. Without question, he's been one of defensive coordinator Dennis Allen's top performers and has quietly emerged as one of the unit's most consistent players.
Undoubtedly, the upcoming 2019 Season will bring much anticipation both for the team and for Bell, as each look to continue the progression that has been building for the past few seasons. For the Saints, it's a progression that has seen them fall just short of winning a 2nd Super Bowl in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees Era.
And for Bell personally, it's a progression that he hopes will help the Black and Gold win that very same elusive 2nd World Title — while leading the Saints defense to greater heights....