Why David Bell is a Sleeper for the Browns in 2023
By Josh Aul
One major position fans still want the Cleveland Browns to add talent to is wide receiver. Yes, the Browns have a locked-and-loaded wide receiver No. 1 in Amari Cooper. Donovan Peoples-Jones has blown expectations out of the water for a sixth-round pick. And the Browns just recently traded Pick 42 in the 2023 NFL Draft to the New York Jets to acquire former second-round pick Elijah Moore. But for many fans, David Bell doesn't make the list of wide receivers being counted on for 2023 and beyond.
Bell was Cleveland's third pick in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft behind cornerback Martin Emerson and defensive end Alex Wright. Browns GM Andrew Berry understands the importance of cornerback depth to an NFL defense.
Berry also recognized the shallow depth on the edge of the defensive line. But when it came to Pick 99, Berry had head coach Kevin Stefanski in his ear about one player in particular, and that was David Bell. As reported by Around the NFL on Twitter, Stefanski said, "We need to get this guy."
If you look casually at the 2022 season, you'd probably think Bell didn't contribute or even play much. But a deeper look at the stats, along with a review of his college production, gives me all the information I need to know this 22-year old receiver could have a very bright future.
"We need to get this guy."- Kevin Stefanski, Browns Head Coach
First, let's go back in time. What did Kevin Stefanski see that made Bell such an attractive player?
In 2019 at Purdue, when Bell was a true freshman, he played in all 12 games and caught 86 passes for 1,035 yards and seven touchdowns. As a freshman just out of high school, David Bell was already dominating Big Ten defenders who were older than him.
In his first three games, Bell had just six total receptions, which means he exploded after that with 80 receptions in the next nine games. In six of those nine games, he recorded 100+ yards, and in three of those nine games, Bell had 10+ receptions.
Against No. 15 Iowa, this freshman receiver snagged 13 passes for 197 yards and a score. Bell went on to win the Big Ten Conference Freshman of the Week four times. He also won 2nd Team All-Big Ten and Big Ten Freshman of the Year. And to show just how much Purdue relied on Bell, he recorded the seventh-most snaps in the nation. So as a true freshman, Bell rarely left the field.
2020 was the COVID-riddled year for everyone. In 2021, David Bell caught 93 passes for 1,275 yards and six touchdowns in 11 games. His overall Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade was 87.5, which ranked him 16th in the nation and tied with eventual first-round pick Jahan Dotson.
Seven of his 11 games saw him go for over 100 yards, and two games saw him rack up over 200 yards. Against No. 9 Michigan State, Bell went for 11/217/1. Against No. 6 Ohio State, he went for 11/103/0. So even against strong competition, Bell dominated. In fact, his career college dominator score was 28 %, according to PFF.
For context, fellow draft class receivers Drake London, Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, and Jameson Williams all had career dominator ratings of 21% or lower — and they were all first-round picks. Like 2019, Bell was top 10 in the nation for snaps played, playing on 96.3% of his team's passing snaps. Purdue relied heavily on Bell's all-around abilities.
So why did he fall to the Browns in the third round?
Simple — Bell tested poorly at the NFL Combine. According to PlayerProfiler.com, Bell came in very slow for a wide receiver with a 4.65 40-yard dash (16th in his class). His Combine speed score was 89.4 (36th in his class), and his burst score was 115.1 (19th in his class).
Bell did produce a decent agility score of 11.71 (8th in his class), but his overall athleticism score according to his NFL Draft Prospect Profile was awful at 51 (35th in his class). But his production score was 86 — second overall in his class — which reinforced the statistical output we saw in college.
Some wide receivers dominate in college but just don't translate to the NFL. While Bell's rookie season, at a bird's-eye glance at least, didn't show anything special, here's what the numbers show. Bell played in 16 games for the Browns.
He caught just 24 passes on 35 targets for 214 yards and no touchdowns. Boring, right? But here's the interesting part. Despite not producing much in-the-box score, Bell actually played on 47% of the team's offensive snaps.
He had a 54% route participation, and his lowly 35 targets still equaled a 12.6% target share. Also, Bell showed just how he makes up for his lack of straight-line speed with an average target separation of 2.5 yards and an average cushion of 4.75 yards (for context, Amari Cooper — who's touted as an elite route runner — had a 1.72-yard target separation and a 4.51-yard average cushion). Combine Bell's ability to create separation with his low drop rate (just 2 drops on 35 targets) and the Browns might just have a very reliable under-the-radar receiver in their midst.
These numbers also tell us that, like Purdue, Cleveland wanted Bell on the field. He played on nearly half the team's total offensive snaps, and he ran a route on more than half the team's passing plays. And with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback for the first 11 games of the season, it's not surprising that a rookie receiver wasn't targeted more; Amari Cooper only had three and four targets in his first two games with Brissett.
Cleveland's passing offense played to Brissett's strengths the best it could, but it was by no means a high-volume passing attack. And when Deshaun Watson finally took the field, the rust was too thick to shake off at any point during the final six games. Also, Bell suffered an injury during the preseason that prevented him from participating much in training camp and preseason games, which set him back and further hindered any chemistry building with his quarterbacks.
So while Bell may not have had much statistical production in 2022, the fact that the Browns kept him in the action all season long shows they believe he can contribute. If he wasn't picking up the playbook or running acceptable routes, he wouldn't have been on the field. Also, at 6-foot-1 and 212 pounds, Bell is not a small receiver, and the Browns relied upon his blocking as well as what he offered on his routes.
And don't hear what I'm not saying. I don't believe Bell will suddenly be the Browns top wide receiver in 2023. But I do believe he needs to be in the conversation with Cooper, Peoples-Jones, and Moore when discussing the Browns' options at wide receiver.
And if a sixth-Round pick like DPJ can develop into the team's second option, why couldn't a third-round guy — a guy with elite college production, top-end route running and separation skills, and reliable hands — develop into something special too? Keep your eyes on David Bell in 2023.