The Cowboys knew there was something special with Markquese Bell from the start. Despite going undrafted in 2022, Dallas made him a priority signing, inking the Florida A&M safety to a $200,000 guaranteed base salary with a $15,000 bonus.
Bell, a former four-star recruit, had a somewhat odd college career. He was suspended indefinitely from Maryland before even playing a single snap. He rebooted in junior college for a year before resurfacing at Florida A&M who didn’t even play in 2020 for COVID-19 concerns.
At 6-foot-2, 212 pounds, Bell impressed in the areas of speed, stature and athleticism. The Cowboys looked past his winding path to the NFL, or any possible red flags along the way, and envisioned what he could be in Dallas.
Dan Quinn, the Cowboys defensive coordinator, saw a player who fit the mold. Quinn values large and long box safeties on his defense. In Quinn’s scheme, the lines were often blurred between safety and linebacker so having a safety stout enough to hold up to the demands of the position was critical.
The main issues standing in Bell’s way weren’t his abilities, but rather the log jam of talent in front of him on the depth chart. Donovan Wilson, Malik Hooker and Jayron Kearse all demanded full-time workloads, leaving very few snaps to someone like Bell.
But a season-ending injury to DeMarvion Overshown in the preseason changed everything for Bell this season.
Overshown, a standout rookie LB, factored greatly into the Cowboys defense in 2023. Losing him was critical because Dallas was already extremely thin in LB depth. It was at this point Bell’s career pivoted, and things couldn’t have worked out better for the Cowboys or for Bell.
In the critical Week 6 matchup against the Chargers, Bell had his coming out party, logging seven tackles, a pass deflection, and of course that critical goal line stop that might have saved the game and potentially the Cowboys’ season.
When the Cowboys converted him to LB, there was a concern that a former defensive back would struggle with the dirty work needed to hold up against the run. Six weeks in, Bell has put those concerns to bed. When Bell is on the field, opposing offenses average 0.14 net yards over average less than when he’s off the field.
Bell is the eighth-highest gradeOd LB by Pro Football Focus, who give him strong marks in coverage, run defense and pass rush. He’s the youngest player in their top-10, and based on his diverse skill set and versatility across the formation, a valuable tool going forward.
Striping away the analysis and focusing solely on the raw numbers tells an equally impressive story. When calculating the success rates and expected points added of plays in which Bell was on the field, we learn the EPA against goes from -0.148 to -0.1935 and offensive success rate against drops from 43.1% to 39.1%, as well.
This means Bell elevates the Cowboys defense from fourth to second in EPA, and in success rate he rockets them from 14th to first in the NFL. The entire unit plays better when Bell is on the field.
The Cowboys probably knew they had something in Bell when they guaranteed him all that money as a UDFA signing back in 2022. They just probably didn’t know it was going to be at LB.
Bell is fast becoming a star on this Cowboys defense and should factor enormously into their success going forward in 2023.