Looking Back At The Circumstances That Led To Kendrell Bell Starting As A Rookie

The excitement about third round draft pick Sean Spence is back in full swing after the comments made by Kevin Colbert, Dick LeBeau and Keith Butler following the OTA sessions that wrapped up last week. While it is great that the rookie seems to be picking things up so fast, it is pretty close to being out of the question that he will start alongside Lawrence Timmons when the Pittsburgh Steelers take the field against the Denver Broncos in week one.

Jeremy Hritz hit it on the head today when he posted that Spence will most likely serve as a special teams player first and foremost and a role player as they season progresses. Is it out of the question that he starts later on in the season? I would say no, but it all depends on how Larry Foote plays and if Stevenson Sylvester can make the jump in his third season.

While it is easy to point back to several years ago when Kendrell Bell did the unthinkable by starting week one after being drafted in the second round of the 2001 draft out of Georgia, the circumstances that led to that were a little different as Bell really didn\’t have any competition.

When the Steelers took the field for their final regular season game of the 2000 season against the San Diego Chargers, Levon Kirkland was the strong-inside linebacker and Earl Holmes was the weak-side inside linebacker. During the off-season that followed, Kirkland was released prior to the draft and the Steelers signed veteran free agent linebacker Mike Jones with hopes that he could assume the weak-side starting spot with Holmes shifting over to the strong-side.

The depth at that time inside for the Steelers was pretty much nonexistent as versatile linebacker Mike Vrabel had left to sign with the New England Patriots as an unrestricted free agent and John Fiala was mostly regarded as a special teams player. Everyone knew that the Steelers had to address the inside linebacker position in the 2001 draft and many in the organization were praying that Dan Morgan out of Miami would fall to the Steelers at the 16 spot. When the Carolina Panthers selected Morgan with the 11th overall selection, the Steelers traded down three spots with the New York Jets and drafted nose tackle Casey Hampton. In the second round is when they got their inside linebacker in the form of Bell.

Coming out of the 2001 draft the Steelers had a first year aging veteran on their team in Jones and the rookie Bell, who like Spence this year, really excelled early on. When the Steelers played the Atlanta Falcons in their first preseason game, Jones started alongside Holmes, but it was Bell that stole the show that night in relief with his two sacks and six tackles, one of which was for a loss, against the Falcons. Bell also added a tackle on special teams and was always one of the first players down field on the punt team. If you remember that game, you remember that Bell was the best player on the field that night.

Tim Lewis, the Steelers defensive coordinator at the time, had glowing comments about Bell after that game. “He\’s very explosive,” Lewis said. “Did you see his sacks the other night? He was blocked by two guys on one and still made the play. It\’s almost like he doesn\’t know he\’s being blocked. He just runs right through. It\’s real interesting to see his power.”

Lewis was not the only one to praise the play that night of Bell as head coach Bill Cowher was not shy with his praise of the rookie either. “I thought Kendrell Bell played exceptional,” said Cowher. “I said it even before Friday night. The one thing you\’ll see about the kid can is that he can tackle.”

Bell would go on to outplay Jones the rest of the preseason and even started the final preseason game against the Buffalo Bills alongside Holmes. It was an easy decision for the coaching staff to make because the only player on the roster that Bell had to beat out was Jones and he did so easily.

With Spence being regarded as a weak-side guy himself initially by the organization, and behind Timmons on the depth chart, you can see the difference in the two situations. Baring an injury, Foote will be the strong-side starting inside linebacker in week one against the Broncos with Timmons beside him. The Steelers have depth and experience inside when you throw Sylvester into the mix and this creates a much different set of circumstances than Bell faced as a rookie. For Spence to start week one, it would mean Timmons has been moved over to the strong-side because Foote is either injured or ineffective and it would also mean that organization does not think that Sylvester can play.