Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott has long been associated with a defensive alignment commonly known as the “big nickel.” While McDermott was the defensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers, this often meant playing a linebacker (Shaq Thompson, in this case) rather than a nickel corner; in Buffalo, the team has used safety Siran Neal in this role, among others.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Bills have targeted many linebackers who specialize in coverage during McDermott’s tenure. Someone like Matt Milano, for example, was initially thought of as a sub-package player thanks to his coverage skills. When looking for reserve linebackers and late-round finds, Buffalo definitely has a “type”—someone who can cover running backs and tight ends in the passing game.
In today’s installment of “91 players in 91 days,” we focus on an intriguing undrafted rookie linebacker who has the intangibles and the pedigree that the team looks for in that “big nickel” role.
Name: Mike Bell
Height/Weight: 6’3”, 220 lbs.
Age: 22 (23 on 12/12/2020)
Experience/Draft: R; undrafted and unsigned following 2019 NFL Draft
College: Fresno State
Acquired: Signed with Buffalo on 4/27/2020
Financial situation (per Spotrac): Bell signed a three-year, $2,285,000 contract with the Bills in April. There is no guaranteed money on the contract, and if Bell makes the 53-man roster, he carries a $610,000 salary-cap hit.
2019 Recap: I’ll have to cheat a bit, since Bell spent the entire year out of football after declaring early for the 2019 NFL Draft. Bell was a highly productive player at Fresno State, but he tested miserably at the NFL Scouting Combine in March 2019, running a 4.83-second 40-yard dash and managing only ten reps on the bench press. He tested as a safety, which makes sense given that was his position in college. He went undrafted, but he was invited to Buffalo’s tryout camp last spring. He ultimately wasn’t signed by the Bills or any other team, remaining a free agent until this April. When Bell weighed in at the Combine in 2019, he was 210 lbs, seven pounds heavier than he was at Fresno State. He’s since added more muscle to his frame as he transitions to the linebacker position. In his last year at Fresno State, Bell made 86 tackles, three tackles for a loss, three interceptions, and 11 pass breakups.
Positional outlook: Bell is one of nine linebackers on the Bills’ current roster, and four of the spots (Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, A.J. Klein, and Tyler Matakevich) are essentially locks for 2020. That leaves Bell to compete with Tyrel Dodson, Vosean Joseph, Corey Thompson, and Del’Shawn Phillips for one or two roster spots.
2020 Offseason: Nothing new to report.
2020 Season outlook: I’ll be honest—when I sat down to write this one, I figured that this portion would say some generic compliment hedged by downing any chance Bell has at making the roster (“While Bell is an intriguing athlete, he ultimately has no shot at the final roster”). After doing some quick Google sleuthing, though, I’m genuinely intrigued to see what Buffalo’s coaching staff can do with this kid. While plenty of NFL scouts dinged him for poor testing at the
Underwear Olympics NFL Combine, the on-field production in college speaks for itself. Jon Ledyard at The Draft Network was very high on Bell prior to the Combine in 2019, going so far as to say that his tape and play was deserving of a top-100 draft choice if he tested well. At worst, Bell could be a sneaky-brilliant addition to the practice squad while he continues to learn the nuances of the linebacker position. At best, he could prove to be a valuable reserve in McDermott’s big nickel package. Either way, Bell has a much better shot at making the roster than I initially would have thought.