Looking up and down the gauntlet of talent that is the 2023 Cowboys defense, there are plenty of early-round draft picks. Eight of the unit’s starting 11 on opening night were taken in the first three rounds of their respective draft classes. Another three first-rounders, a second-rounder, and two more third-rounders were waiting to come in off the bench as needed.
But it was an undrafted player out of a small HBCU who led them all in tackles versus the Giants.
What’s more impressive, Markquese Bell did it less than a month after being thrust into a new position as an injury replacement.
“The fact that he’s just a few weeks in on the job shows what kind of instincts he has,” Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said this week following Bell’s eight-tackle performance in the team’s 40-0 stonewalling of the Giants.
“We’re just trying to enhance those good speed and hitting qualities and put him down close into that space to do it. I was very encouraged by him to get extended play time [Sunday] night: some big hits, a forced fumble. Those were things that I know are in his DNA, and it was very cool to see those come out.”
A safety at Florida A&M, Bell signed with the Cowboys after the 2022 draft. He got into just five games as a rookie, logging only 22 snaps with the defense and recording one tackle.
But when third-round prospect DeMarvion Overshown’s promising debut season was wiped out by a preseason injury in August, the 6-foot-2-inch, 215-pound Bell answered Quinn’s call.
“That definitely was part of why we wanted him so much in the first place,” the coordinator explained, “because he has the length and the size to do that. And then when D-Mo was injured, there was really only one other person that had that kind of speed and striking ability, and that was ‘Quese. So when Bell gets in there, you feel some of those same type of run-and-hit factor plays, that he can match up and go. That’s why, for me, there was really no one else I was going to call to make that move other than Markqeuse, because I had a vision for him coming out of A&M, that he could do the linebacker jobs.”
It’s a tactic Quinn has become famous for, creating hybrid roles for his most gifted athletes: Micah Parsons, Jayron Kearse, Dante Fowler, Israel Mukuamu, to name a few shapeshifters from just the current roster.
“Putting guys into different spaces,” Quinn said. “That’s what is fun about our defense.”
Fun might not be the word that the Giants offense would have used Sunday night to describe Bell’s inspired play over 31 defensive snaps as a converted linebacker.
Cowboys converted Markquese Bell from safety last month. There were moments Sunday when he looked like he's played linebacker for a decade. pic.twitter.com/BpJ9NDbONq
— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) September 11, 2023
“I think the sound of his hit that took place when there was a contact, you felt explosion. You felt hitting. You felt striking ability. That’s what I look for from a linebacker or a safety,” Quinn told reporters. “Knowing that he’s going to be in where the action is and he is about that life? That’s a good thing.”
An offer for Cowboys fans
For the best local Austin news, sports, entertainment and culture coverage, subscribe to the Austin American-Statesman.
Bell was just one of a number of younger Cowboys defenders to make a difference in Week 1. Juanyeh Thomas blocked the field goal try that set up Noah Igbinoghene to score the first points of the season. DaRon Bland had the first interception of 2023. Sam Williams, Devin Harper, Damone Clark, Osa Odighizuwa, Chauncey Golston: all lesser-known relative newcomers who played important roles.
Sometimes a phenom like Parsons comes along and is an instant superstar. Sometimes a guy has to travel a slightly different path.
But it could be the willingness of Bell and other young players to take on- and succeed with- unexpected challenges that helps the whole crew get to where they’re trying to ultimately go this season.
Because it sounds like Sunday night was just first time Cowboys fans will be hearing this Bell ring loud and proud on the field.
“Seeing guys make impacts like that,” Quinn reflected, “that’s what it’s all about, and they’re going to get better and better as they go.”