Joique Bell: The New Detroit Lions Wide Receiver?

Marshall ZweigContributor IISeptember 24, 2013

Could the Lions find their answer at slot receiver out of their backfield? (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)
Could the Lions find their answer at slot receiver out of their backfield? (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Detroit Lions running back Joique Bell has been called a lot of things during his short NFL career: undrafted; practice squad tackling dummy; deep bench player; backup; starter.

But I bet this is the first time he's been called a wide receiver.

Nate Burleson is out with a broken arm.
Nate Burleson is out with a broken arm.Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Lions slot receiver Nate Burleson is out for at least six weeks after breaking his arm in two places in a car crash.

Bell is out of a starting job, one week after he contributed 132 yards from scrimmage in the Lions' first victory in Washington since...well, since forever.

Does anybody but me see the connection?

Bell's energy and heads-up play (did you see him shove Matthew Stafford into a crucial fourth-quarter first down?) make him difficult to take off the field. But running back Reggie Bush, who likely will be returning from an injury when the Lions face the Chicago Bears, provides an unquestionably bigger home run threat.

So how to keep Bell on the field?

Bear in mind, wide receivers Ryan Broyles and Patrick Edwards are recovering from injuries, too. Broyles was kept to a strict snap count in the Washington contest, his first game back from a knee injury. And wide receiver Patrick Edwards, who like Bell went undrafted and like Bell is a real find for the Lions, didn't even practice last week.

Can Bell (left) fill Burleson's shoes in the slot?
Can Bell (left) fill Burleson's shoes in the slot?Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Jim Schwartz, meet Joique Bell, your new slot receiver.

Allow me to make my case:

• Burleson is 6'0"; Bell is 5'11". They are similarly-sized targets for quarterback Matthew Stafford.

• Burleson runs a 4.51 40; Bell runs a 4.68. So Burleson is faster. But possession receivers don't have to be speedy; they have to run precise routes and, most importantly, they have to be able to withstand the pummeling that catching passes over the middle entails. Which brings me to my third point...

• Burleson shows excellent fearlessness in catching the ball even when he knows he's gonna take a pounding. Bell gets pounded on every handoff, so it's likely he'd take the slot passes—and the punishment that comes with them—in stride.

Consider what Stafford said about Bell after the victory over the Washington Redskins (via the Detroit Free Press):

I keep saying every time they give the kid the opportunity to make some plays or play more, he does a great job. He’s a great receiver out of the backfield. The guy’s just tough to bring’s nothing flashy, you don’t sit there and ooh and aah, but the guy’s just tough to bring down and makes great plays.

Great receiver, nothing flashy, tough to bring down…couldn't one describe Burleson the same way?

Bell ranks third on the Lions in catches this season, with 14. So he's sort of a de facto receiver already.

Let's see if Leshoure (leaping) can really play well, as Schwartz says he can.
Let's see if Leshoure (leaping) can really play well, as Schwartz says he can.Jennifer Hilderbrand-USA TODAY S

And then we can hold both running back Mikel Leshoure's and head coach Jim Schwartz's feet to the fire, after Schwartz said this about Leshoure in the post-Washington presser (via the team's press conference on their homepage):

I said this earlier this week, we have a lot of confidence in Mikel. When he plays, he'll play well. We don't have any question about that. He's working extremely hard, but we only have one running back on the field at a particular time and that was just the way the game went.

If Schwartz means what he says, why not let Leshoure back up Bush, coming in as a third-down back or in short-yardage situations, and let's really see whether he will indeed "play well?"

At any rate, after Bell's performance, I hate to see him return to the bench. Granted, the Redskins' front four are about as tough as Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and Koothrapoli from The Big Bang Theory; Washington came into the Lions game having allowed 402 rushing yards in their two prior games, worst in the league. Yet they held Bell to 63 yards on 20 carries—which makes Bell's numbers considerably less impressive.

AP Photo/Paul Sancya
AP Photo/Paul Sancya

But it's his catching the ball out of the backfield that makes Bell so intriguing. And the Lions are approaching the let's-sign-someone-off-somebody-else's-practice-squad stage regarding their receiving corps. Before some visionary in the Lions' front office comes up with the name Titus Young (and some bail money), I say give Bell a chance.

Plus, it allows the Lions to keep Burleson, who has a recent history of recovering quickly from broken limbs, on the active roster, if they believe he'll play again this season. A break generally takes six weeks to heal, and then some muscle-building time, but the way Burleson has healed before, he may actually play against the Bears—when the Lions face them the second time, on November 10.

In Burleson, the team has lost a critical weapon in their offensive scheme. Let's see if Joique can once again answer the Bell.