There was Clelin Ferrell, chopping it up with Montez Sweat. Along with Christian Wilkins, breaking bread with Devin White and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. The elite defensive draft prospects were gathered together at a Bay Area steakhouse, having each received one of the coveted 30 invites allocated to the Raiders by the NFL each season. And there with them was Bell, a combine snub who had been playing defensive end for all of one college football season. At an FCS school.
And yet …
“He’s sitting there like he belongs,” Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther recalled with a laugh. “You could see the desire in his eyes. I just thought, ‘We’ve gotta teach this f—er to get in a stance.'”
Meet Bell, the Raiders’ ninth and final draft pick of 2019, a seventh-round selection who, as an edge rusher, checks a box at a position of need after the Raiders had a league-low 13 sacks last season. But unlike Ferrell, the first-rounder whose selection at No. 4 overall raised more than a few hackles, Bell barely registered a blip at No. 230 overall. In fact, first-year Raiders general manager Mike Mayock, a longtime NFL Network draft analyst, “stumped the truck” as the league’s station had no highlights of Bell to show when Mayock pulled Bell’s card.
Maybe that’s because Bell, a high school track star in Long Beach, California, made the unconventional switch from receiver to defensive end as a Prairie View senior. Was Mayock trolling his former employers and perhaps every analyst who was sure the Raiders would draft a quarterback (Bell’s initials, after all, are QB)? Mayock insists Bell is a legitimate prospect. So legit, the Raiders feared word would get out that he was on that visit with Ferrell & Co. The Raiders worried some other team would keep Oakland from signing him as an undrafted rookie after all of the leg work done by Raiders scout Teddy Atlas III. So Oakland took him in the seventh round.
“He kind of kept this guy alive in my mind, and that’s what good scouts do,” Mayock said of Atlas. “At first I was like, ‘I’ve got to hear about a wide receiver converted to defensive end, and he’s from a small school? Come on, Teddy.’
“He kept bringing him up and he kept bringing him up and he said, ‘Mike, he’s 240 pounds.’ I was like, ‘Wait a minute, he was 222 or 225 during his [season].’ He said, ‘240, and he ran a 4.4.’ That got my attention.”
Enough for Oakland to attend his Pro Day, where he flashed that receiver speed and that edge rusher burst. Besides running that 4.48-second 40-time, which would have been tied for the 10th-fastest time at the combine, he had a vertical jump of 41.5 inches, which would have been tied for sixth-best in Indianapolis. Bell also benched 225 pounds 23 times and cleared the 12-foot-long tape on the broad jump, but fell backward to scratch, before registering an 11-4.
After catching a combined 19 passes for 259 yards and one touchdown his first three seasons, a new coaching staff at Prairie View saw something different in the 6-feet-4 athletic freak. So much so that incoming defensive line coach Todd Middleton pulled Bell, a rising senior, aside before spring practice began.
— Paul Gutierrez (@PGutierrezESPN) May 3, 2019
“I didn’t have a lot of athleticism or experience coming back on the line,” Middleton said. “I saw him walk by and he was physically imposing. So I brought it up to the other coaches, ‘Let me have him.’ There was a roar of laughter in the room. They thought I was crazy.”
As did Bell.
“At first, it kind of sounded a little crazy to me,” Bell said. “But looking back at it now, it’s probably the best decision I ever made in my life. So, I thank those guys at Prairie View — for giving me an opportunity, making it available to me because I would never have thought to do that myself.”
Asked how much more fun it was to run down quarterbacks than to run routes, Bell laughed.
“Ten times more fun,” he said. “A lot more fun. Like I said, when I got a chance in spring ball I got four or five sacks and ever since that day, I fell in love playing defense. My only regret is I should have tried it sooner. That’s my only regret. But here we are.”
Bell, who has put on more than 20 pounds of muscle since the start of last season and currently weighs 243 pounds, led the Panthers with 7.5 sacks, nearly matching the eight receptions he had as a junior. He finished fast, with five sacks coming in the Panthers’ last four games.
“They knew who he was because, as I told him, with your speed, there’s not too many guys who can kick-slide and keep up with you,” said Middleton, who added that besides the Raiders, the Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, Los Angeles Chargers, Arizona Cardinals and Baltimore Ravens were all interested in Bell.
“He just kept getting better and better and better. He’s got the measurables — the speed, the length. He has raw ability. He just needs some fine-tuning. And with some NFL coaching, it could be scary.”
All of this after Bell actually took a year off from football after high school, instead running track at Riverside (Calif.) City College before being recruited to run track and play football by Prairie View.
And now he has made the switch from little-used receiver to second-team all-SWAC defensive end.
“I feel like it just shows the potential,” Ferrell said of Bell becoming an edge rusher mid-stream. “He has all the physical assets that you want in a player that could play this position. The thing about him is that he’s a hard worker. … I feel like he’s going to have a bright future, especially if he just keeps working.
“It’s tough, because [receivers are] out there and the physicality is more-so going against a cornerback. You can be physical, but you’re not … it’s different when you’re down in there with those big hogs, you know what I mean? Every. Single. Play. I feel like he has the right mindset for it. He played it in college and he obviously played well or he wouldn’t be here, so I’m excited for it.”
Yeah, the whole story was enough to pique the interest of Raiders coach Jon Gruden.
“His athleticism is eye-popping,” Gruden said. “He’s just a novice at the position, so he’s got a lot to learn. Quinton Bell is interesting.”
He is also a Raiders legacy, so to speak, as his uncle Nick Bell was the Raiders’ second-round draft pick in 1991 as a running back out of Iowa. After quarterback Todd Marinovich, but before the likes of receiver Rocket Ismail, defensive end Nolan Harrison and tight end Andrew Glover.
Yes, Uncle Nick was the first running back the Raiders drafted after Bo Jackson’s career-ending hip injury.
“It’s crazy how much we look alike,” Bell, whose brother Xavier is a redshirt sophomore safety at Arizona, said as he examined one of his uncle’s rookie trading cards.
“I remember as a little kid, seeing these in his rooms and [him] showing them to us. Who would have thought I’d be a Raider one day?”
Indeed, Bell is the first Prairie View player drafted into the NFL since Matthew Teague in 1980, and only the third Panther drafted by the Raiders, along with receiver Louis Neal in 1973 and defensive back Finnis Taylor in 1969.
“I have such a different, not typical story when it comes to the game of football with me,” Bell said. “And just everything that I’ve been through — from trying to find a college to offer me a scholarship, to playing receiver for three years and not doing anything, switching coaching staffs — it’s just a crazy story. And just to be able to see my name on that TV [during the draft], it kind of makes you feel like you are doing what you are supposed to be doing and all your hard work is paying off. But it’s only the beginning and now it’s really time to get down and really work hard.
“I can’t wait, honestly. Can’t wait.”