CINCINNATI — Vonn Bell says he will never forget how he felt when the New Orleans Saints made the decision to move on from him with the signing of safety Malcom Jenkins early in free agency ahead of the 2020 season.
The Saints had drafted him in the second round out of Ohio State in 2016, and he said he loved playing in front of the electric atmosphere at the Superdome during his four years there.
But after 66 games with New Orleans, his time there suddenly ended. The Cincinnati Bengals came calling soon after, and Bell signed a three-year, $18 million contract that made him a valuable part of a defensive rebuild.
While Bell has reshaped his career with the Bengals, he admits he’s a little extra motivated going back to the Superdome for the first time since his breakup this weekend when the Bengals play the Saints.
“They drafted me, yeah, and I appreciate the opportunity, but they moved on from me,” Bell said. “You never forget that. It’s a milestone. You learn from it.”
The Bengals’ defense was built around guys cast away by other teams, and they came together to play a major role in leading the team to a Super Bowl last season. Three of those players were former Saints: Bell, Trey Hendrickson and Eli Apple.
Bell was the first pickup. Hendrickson and Apple came last year. Bell has four interceptions over his last seven games, dating back to the 2021 playoffs. Hendrickson wracked up 17.5 sacks his first season in Cincinnati, and Apple, who played with the Saints in 2019, went from a reserve to regular starting cornerback.
“We do deep dives,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said of how they ended up with the three players. “The mole for Eli was Lou Anarumo, having worked with him. I knew one of Trey’s college coaches -- we grew up together -- at FAU (Florida Atlantic University). Vonn Bell’s reputation dates all the way back to whatever you want to research about Vonn Bell. We got Vonn first obviously, so you get a chance to talk about Trey and Eli and obviously, he wanted to play with those guys. That usually is how it works. We try to utilize the relationships we have and then if you’ve got players that have played with those guys and players you trust their opinion and their approach and they know what it takes to win championships. Obviously, Vonn was quick to say Trey and Eli being in the building would help us win championships. That went a long way for us.”
Bell said the accountability he learned in New Orleans and the demand for success there made him a better player, and he tried to bring those things to Cincinnati.
He’s grown here as a leader and defender.
“I grew a lot around (defensive coordinator) Lou (Anarumo),” Bell said. “He helped me grow as a player. The game slowed down. He puts me in position to make plays.”
Anarumo said other teams underestimated Bell’s range and pegged him as just a box safety when the Bengals saw he could be more than that.
The ball he picked off in overtime of the AFC Championship last year was an example of that.
“You’ve got the ball in the air with (Patrick) Mahomes throwing it and (Tyreek) Hill’s down there and he knocks the ball out,” Anarumo said. “That game is different if he doesn’t. People talk about Eli’s play in the AFC Championship game (making a goal-line stop just before halftime), but that one was just as big. We saw that and then everything else that comes with him made that one a no-brainer for me.”
Bell said teams “slept” on him but just needed to go back and watch film of him in college to understand his capabilities.
He has three interceptions this season, over the last two games, and he looks to continue that success Sunday against whichever quarterback the Bengals face. Jameis Winston hasn’t played the last two weeks and was still limited because of a back and ankle injury Wednesday at practice, but even if he is healthy the Saints still could go with Andy Dalton for a third straight game. Taysom Hill, who plays some quarterback in the Wildcat, was limited Wednesday because of a rib injury.
“I had to play my role in New Orleans, and played it well,” Bell said. “I’m very versatile and really just showing that, I’m glad it’s coming out to light.”
Bengals at Saints, 1 p.m., Ch. 7, 12; 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7