Joique Bell was little more than an afterthought when the Lions signed him off the New Orleans Saints‘ practice squad back in December of 2011.
Bell had been with four different teams to that point. After being signed as an undrafted free agent by the Buffalo Bills in 2010, he had bounced around to the Eagles, the Colts, the Eagles again, and finally the Saints, where he spent the majority of his 2011 season on the practice squad.
The Lions signed him primarily for depth in 2011, as they were headed to the playoffs with primary options Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure shelved for the year. Both players were expected back in 2012, but only Leshoure returned, and his impact was not as great as the Lions might have hoped.
In 2012, Bell came close to outgaining Leshoure in terms of yards from scrimmage with 899 yards to Leshoure’s 1014. That’s not impressive until you consider Bell only had 134 touches to Leshoure’s 249. In other words, Bell notched 2.6 yards per touch more than Leshoure.
This preseason, Bell is at it again. Coming into training camp, the second running back spot alongside Reggie Bush looked like it was Leshoure’s to lose. After three preseason games, it appears he may have lost it. Granted, the sample size of three preseason games is small and the impact is insignificant, so whether you take the stats seriously or brush them off is your call.
Still, Leshoure has posted 59 yards in 13 carries this preseason, while Bell has 75 yards in 11 carries. He has nearly as many yards from scrimmage as Bush, despite nine fewer touches. Bell is the only Lions running back averaging more than five yards per carry in the preseason—he’s averaging 6.8.
All of these stats add up to the fact that, pound-for-pound, Joique Bell has been not just the Lions’ second-best running back this preseason, but the Lions’ most potent offensive weapon, period.
Now, there are some caveats to this, not the least of which is the fact that he has gotten most of his touches in the second half of his preseason games, against inferior competition. Putting aside the fact that this also means he’s been running behind Rodney Austin at guard and catching passes from Kellen Moore, this still shouldn’t be a major concern, because he has already set the precedent for his own success in the 2012 regular season.
It might be worth taking Bell’s impressive preseason performance with some salt if he was a rookie, but Bell is a fourth-year pro now, and he played 16 solid games for the Lions last season. All we’re seeing from Bell is what the Lions were hoping to see from Leshoure: development and progression. Bell isn’t doing anything he wasn’t doing last year, he’s just doing it better and more consistently.
However, despite all the good things Bell is doing, he’s not likely to draw a great deal of attention from defenses focused on Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush.
That makes Bell the most dangerous kind of weapon: one who deserves the defenses’ respect, but doesn’t have it.
Bell’s style isn’t flashy. He’s not a threat to outrun 11 men on the defense for 80 yards like Bush is. He’s a grinder with soft pass-catching hands who has enough lateral quickness and toughness to break a tackle or four. He was especially good in 2012 when put up against a winded defense in the fourth quarter.
But with all the things Bell does right, he’s unlikely to draw the defense’s best player on any given play, especially if he shares the field with Bush and Megatron. Rightfully so, since he isn’t the same home-run threat those two are. Bell is good, but not world-class.
Still, it doesn’t take a world-class player to damage a defense. Bell is the type of player who could have 150 highly efficient yards from scrimmage, but fail to post a single post-game highlight. His game is about moving the ball 5-15 yards at a time, with the occasional highlight in which his long run is referred to as “rumbling.”
He’ll rarely “wow” anybody, but he’s setting up to be an absolutely integral part of the Lions offense.
Most importantly, Bell is hidden among the Lions’ standout weapons, and the Lions can only hope opposing defenses fail to notice him until after he’s made them pay for ignoring him.