It's a fact throughout the NFL that you can never have too many running backs on your roster. With the increased specialization of offenses over the last 15 years as well as the week to week pounding that players at the position take through a 16-game season, Mike Bell is trying to take advantage of these factors in a race for a roster spot and a role on offense and special teams for the Saints in 2009.
Bell is entering probably the most crucial year of his three-year NFL career. Having entered the league as an undrafted free agent though and breaking through into a starting lineup as a rookie, he possesses the ability to play a role in the club's running game.
A Denver native, who moved to the Phoenix suburbs at age 11, Bell matriculated at the University of Arizona, where he finished fourth on their all-time rushing charts with 3,163 yards and 17 touchdowns, becoming the first player to lead the Wildcats in rushing for four consecutive seasons. However, a coaching change occurred midway through his career in Tucson and the combination of a couple of rebuilding seasons and the presence of other productive, high-profile Pac-10 runners on more successful teams such as Reggie Bush, Maurice Jones Drew, Marshawn Lynch and LenDale White during the same period contributed to him being bypassed in the 2006 NFL Draft.
Bell's professional career would begin in storybook fashion, as he returned to his hometown to sign with the Broncos and went on to rush for 677 yards with eight touchdowns, ranking among the top performances in NFL history by an undrafted rookie runner.
"I had a mentality where I had nothing to lose," said Bell, explaining his successful first campaign, spurred by an impressive training camp. "I came in with an attitude that I wasn't going to focus on who was in front of me or who was behind me. I was going to focus on myself and be my own competition."
However, Denver would choose three backs in the 2007 NFL Draft and head coach Mike Shanahan moved Bell to the fullback position, a switch that he would struggle with after having played such a prominent role carrying the ball as a rookie.
"I think that it was really bad on my part in how I responded to the situation," said Bell "I was looking at it like I was owed something for what I did previously. In the NFL, it's a blessing just to be there. I should have taken it as a compliment and seen how it played out, but I got down on myself and it almost ruined my career."
After being waived by the Broncos on the eve of 2008 training camp, Bell spent a couple weeks of the preseason with the Houston Texans. With his career at a crossroads, the 6-0, 225 pound back returned to Colorado and put a premium on staying in shape, working out mornings and serving as a volunteer coach at a local high school afternoons, keeping himself ready for his next opportunity.
That chance came in mid-November, when Bell was added to the Saints roster to provide depth to a position affected by injuries to Bush, Deuce McAllister and Aaron Stecker. Seeking to contribute wherever he could on offense and special teams, while working to digest the club's playbook the best he could in a short period, Bell carried 13 times for 42 yards with one touchdown as a reserve, enjoying his most extensive time as a runner since the 2006 campaign.
"I'm glad that coach Payton gave me another chance," said Bell. "I came in with the attitude that I would play whatever position on offense or special teams they wanted me to. It didn't matter."
About two and a half months after the end of the regular season, Bell returned to New Orleans for the club's offseason conditioning program where he has been a constant. Following some personnel changes at the position in the offseason, the mandate is clear that a role for the third running back on the team is potentially up for grabs between him, Lynell Hamilton with rookies Herb Donaldson and Garrett Hartley/P,-d-,J,-d-, Hill.aspx">P.J. Hill added to the mix last month. His hard work has involved conditioning, and extensive attention to detail both on the field and in the meeting room as he seeks to master an offensive system different from the one he played in at Denver, picking up pointers from veterans such as Bush and Pierre Thomas.
"I feel much more comfortable now," said Bell. "There are some veteran guys who have been in this system for a while that are constantly feeding me and telling me what to do. I can just sit back and be confident instead of worrying about making mistakes like I was when I initially arrived last year.
Bell has taken advantage of having nearly seven months in this system, based on his confidence in running, blocking and catching passes at the recent OTA sessions and veteran's minicamp. With Bush coming off of offseason knee injury, Saints head coach Sean Payton held him out of two practices, providing Bell and his running mates with additional repetitions.
"Mike has done a good job," said Payton. "He's working in there. After Pierre Thomas, you see Mike and Lynell Hamilton getting a lot of work and then we have the two young rookie free agents and both of those guys are picking things up. It takes a while, but I think Mike has done a good job. He has not been with us a full year yet and I think this offseason has helped him a lot.
While he has had a productive offseason, he knows that the stakes will rise further on July 30 when training camp opens in the battle for a roster spot that will most likely require the versatility to play both offense and special teams, something that will play out with others in the arena of two-a-day practices and preseason games.
"I'm determined to take advantage of this opportunity," said Bell. "I don't know what my role will be if I make the team. I just know that every time I'm on the field, whether it be special teams, blocking or anything, I'm going to try to do the best I can and execute."
Notes: The Saints returned to the practice field today after Payton substituted yesterday's workout with an excursion to the French Quarter for a scavenger hunt…Each member of the coaching staff led a group of four players apiece as they used teamwork and took advantage of clues to find items in a race against time…Running backs coach Bret Ingalls' team was the first place winner…The Saints will be active throughout the community all week…Tomorrow the next to last concert in the Youth Leadership Council's "Wednesday at the Square" event will take place in Lafayette Square with The Boogie Men and Dr. Gonzeaux providing the entertainment….On Saturday, CB Leigh Torrence, through his foundation and several of his teammates will partner with Habitat for Humanity to work on the rebuilding of some houses in Harvey as well as mentoring some local youth.