The tight end position in the NFL has been quite interesting over the past decade as seemingly much of the upper echelon players come from an untraditional background. Stars such as Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, and Julius Thomas have proven that a combination of size and athleticism is the ideal starting point for a game-changing tight end. While experience is important, NFL coaches have demonstrated that it is possible to transform unique athletes into productive tight ends.
In a league that places a priority on athletic, pass-catching tight ends, the 2015 draft class has been viewed as particularly weak, forcing NFL talent evaluators to dig deeper in hopes of finding a dynamic playmaker. Oklahoma's Blake Bell might be exactly that, as he has come onto the NFL draft radar over the past eight months. Bell, like many athletic tight ends before him, is relatively new to the position. The 23-year old played quarterback for the Sooners before making the transition prior to his last collegiate season.
As a junior, Bell started eight games at quarterback for the Sooners, compiling 1,648 yards through the air in addition to 12 touchdown passes. Although Bell had moderate success, he was not expected to start in 2014, making his decision to change position easier.
"It just came down to whether I'm going to go play quarterback somewhere else or stay at OU and finish out my career," said Bell. "What I wanted to do ultimately was stay there and finish out with the guys I came in with."
In 2014, Bell had 16 catches, four of which were touchdowns and 214 yards receiving. Although his production was limited, the fifth-year senior intrigued NFL scouts. Making tremendous strides as the season wore on the Wichita, Kansas native impressed with reliable hands and surprising blocking ability. At 6-5 and 260 pounds, Bell has the ideal size for an inline tight end at the next level.
Throughout the pre-draft process, Bell has largely impressed. At the combine, Bell ran a 4.80 40-yard dash, fifth-best among competing tight ends. At his pro day, Bell was noted for appearing 'natural' while catching the football, but as expected, Bell's route running ability was raw and lacked refinement. NFL media draft analyst Mike Mayock believes Bell has improved his draft status since February.
"The reason I've got Bell as a riser is because he has the size and the athletic ability to develop as an inline tight end, which there aren't a lot of in today's NFL," Mayock said. "I think some teams are intrigued by his upside potential. Where does he go? I have trouble seeing him go before the fourth or fifth round. But you never know because there just aren't many (good) tight ends in this draft.''
As he prepares for the draft and beyond, Bell has a unique support group with NFL experience. His father Mark Bell played six NFL seasons as a defensive end for both the Seahawks and the Chiefs, while his uncle Mike Bell played twelve seasons as a defensive end as well, spending all years with the Chiefs. Blake is thrilled with his opportunity to continue the family tradition.
"It's awesome," Bell said. "This has been a dream of mine since I've been very little. Obviously it was to play Division I football and the next step was the NFL, so I'm getting the opportunity of a lifetime."
Although quarterbacks sometimes make a transition to wide receiver, it is quite rare to see one move to tight end. Bell draws a similar comparison to Jay Riemersma, a former Bills tight end who played nine seasons in the NFL. After a severe rotator cuff injury occurred at the middle point of his career at the University of Michigan, Riemersma was forced to move from his then natural position of quarterback, to tight end. With similar size and abilities, Bell hopes to carve out a lengthy NFL career just as Riemersma did.