On Monday, July 21, the Broncos waived tailback Mike Bell.
Bell attended high school in Arizona and went to the University of Arizona. A three-year starter for the Wildcats, Bell stayed until his senior season where he scored 17 touchdowns and racked up 3,163 yards, third most in school history.
He was invited to the 2006 NFL Scouting Combine, but, although he measured in at 6 feet and 221 pounds, he failed to impress scouts in the 40-yard dash, with a time of 4.56 seconds.
He also needed 679 carries to gain those yards (4.6 yards per carry) and caught only 56 passes throughout his collegiate career. The low rushing average told scouts that he wasn't explosive and the lack of production in the passing game suggested that he couldn't catch. As such, he went undrafted and signed with Denver as a free agent.
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During the 2006 offseason, Bell made his mark, shining in the mini-camps and OTAs, separating himself from the competition — Ron Dayne and Tatum Bell, who are not future Hall of Famers, but are no slouches — and he was eventually named as the starter prior to the Broncos first preseason game for the 2006 season.
Tatum Bell ended up starting, but Mike still managed to make his mark after Dayne struggled with weight issues and ended up in coach Mike Shanahan's doghouse. After Tatum missed a number of games with a turf toe injury, Mike stepped into the starting job, with impressive results.
Particularly of interest to Bill Polian would be Week 7 of 2006, in which Bell rushed for 136 yards on 15 carries — a 9.1 average, partly dismissing the idea that he was not a big-play back — against the Indianapolis Colts.
While it's true that the team was going through a transitional period, had not yet righted the ship with regard to the running game, had not traded for Anthony McFarland, and Bob Sanders was out of the lineup, that is still an impressive showing.
It is very likely that Polian has not forgotten about Bell's performance and may be willing to give the young man a chance.One other person of note that has a long history with Mike Bell is Ed Thompson, who interviewed Bell prior to the 2006 draft. Check out part one and part two of the interview from the archives.
During the course of the 2006 season, Bell proved his critics wrong on both fronts by averaging 4.3 yards per carry and flashing explosiveness at times, as well as catching 20 passes in a limited role. As a matter of fact, he was targeted 27 times in 2006 and only dropped one pass, which is an average that would make Kenton Keith quite envious.
Thompson agrees: "The bottom line is that Mike Bell is a better receiver and a tough runner inside the tackles," Thompson said. "If there's one knock on him, I'd have to say that he's not as effective on the wide runs, but the Colts count on Keith as more of an inside runner. Keith's off-field incident during the offseason won't be a plus for him. Meanwhile, the former Broncos running back has a strong work ethic and the kind of polish and character the Colts like. He's also very durable and is an adequate kick returner, providing him with some additional value. But his biggest asset is his hands out of the backfield — for an offense like Indy's, that's huge."
Keith would have the biggest target on his back if Bell was signed by the Colts and brought into camp to compete for a roster spot. Fans and coaches alike were frustrated by Keith's inconsistent hands in 2007 and, with Keith's similar average of 4.4 yards per carry last season on fewer carries, it could be easily argued that Bell would represent an immediate upgrade depth-wise and an excellent insurance policy should anything happen to Dominic Rhodes or Joseph Addai.
Mike Bell breaks a tackle vs. Arizona in 2006
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Bell found himself on the wrong end of a crowded depth chart in Denver and was unable to overcome the fact that Travis Henry was given the starting nod in 2007 and that Tatum Bell would back Henry up, and would surely welcome an opportunity to catch on with a team that has excellent postseason prospects.
As a third-year player, Bell could be had very cheaply and would provide the Colts with another very viable option in the event that the wheels come off in the backfield in 2008.
At 25 years old, he is still a young man, still young enough to be considered a prospect, and is three years younger than Keith.
It could be argued that Bell was simply a product of the Broncos system, an organization that routinely churns out 1,000 yard rushers from castaways and players that nobody else wants.
The important thing to remember when considering that argument is that Colts running backs and Broncos running backs are asked to act in very similar ways once they receive the handoff.
Broncos backs are generally given the ball on a toss or a sweep, tasked to analyze one half of the line and cut back into the hole. Colts backs are required to read the blocking to one side of center Jeff Saturday and either cut to to the inside or outside shoulder of a lineman.
Both systems require the back to have excellent vision, be decisive, aggressively attack the hole, and churn out yards after contact. After an initial adjustment period, Bell should find himself right at home in the Indianapolis offense.
At the very least, Bell offers an extraordinary amount of upside and security, coupled with very little risk. The Colts owe it to themselves to at least put in a waiver claim and see if he can establish himself in training camp and beyond.