Zac Taylor on Vonn Bell’s return to Bengals: ‘He’s the ultimate standard setter’

Credit: Michael Dwyer

Credit: Michael Dwyer

Vonn Bell had never been cut in any sport at any level, but when the Carolina Panthers released him this week, it led to a fateful return to the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Bengals missed Bell’s presence and vocal leadership last year while a young defense that lacked communication got torched on explosive plays. Now they can stop wondering how things might have been different with Bell.

Cincinnati scooped him back up in free agency and signed him Friday to a one-year contract worth $6 million – of which Carolina is paying all but the league minimum. He had signed a three-year deal with the Panthers last year but played just 13 games because of shoulder and quad injuries.

“It was kind of weird (getting cut),” Bell said. “But it is what it is. That’s why I say, ‘I’m in the now.’ Leave it behind. But it’s definitely gonna (add) fuel to the fire for sure.”

Bell finished last season with 69 tackles and one interception, while posting his lowest Pro Football Focus defensive grade (63.9) since 2019 when he was in his last season with the New Orleans Saints. He wants to show he can still play at a high level, and returning to Cincinnati gave him his best chance at that.

The 29-year-old safety was a fixture in Lou Anarumo’s defense during his three previous years in Cincinnati from 2020 through 2022 and his familiarity with the system was something that factored into his decision to return. In his final season with the Bengals, he had four interceptions, 77 tackles, two forced fumbles, four quarterback hits and four tackles for loss.

“Amazing, amazing,” Bell said when asked how it feels to be back. “I’m at peace. Glad to be back. I feel warm. Glad to see a lot of familiar faces with the coaches. A lot of guys hit me up, and it’s just great to be back for sure.”

“I think the connection with the people here, especially with the coaching staff and the guys in the locker room (was important). That locker room is very special, just going to war with your brothers. You don’t feel by yourself and that’s the No. 1 thing. I’m glad to be back. It feels like home and ready to get to it.”

Anarumo was the first person he spoke to about his possible return to Cincinnati when the Panthers officially released him.

“He said, ‘What are we doing?’” Bell said. “Thay’s my guy, man. We have a connection and a bond that will last forever. Just hearing his voice made me calm down. It was a lot of anxiety for sure. First time going through that. It’s over now. It’s in the past. I’m in the now.”

Bell was fully aware the Panthers are on the Bengals’ schedule this season. He pointed out there’s “bulletin board material” getting a chance to face the team that released him.

The former Ohio State product said he still kept his eye on the Bengals last season while he was with Carolina. He watched every game and always told his teammates “that’s my people right there.” Leaving Cincinnati with a loss in the AFC Championship – a game that slipped away right at the end – left a bad taste in his mouth, he said, and then going through a tough season with the Panthers made it even tougher.

“Very hard,” Bell said. “It was heavy on my heart. But I let that go, and I’m in the now.”

The “unfinished business” mentality drives him in his return, but now almost 30 years old and coming off some wear and tear last season, Bell has to earn his time in a crowded safety room. Cincinnati signed former Ravens safety Geno Stone, and the Bengals still have youngsters Dax Hill and Jordan Battle competing.

Bell, known previously as the first guy into the gym in the mornings, said he was told to just “be you and let everything else play out,” so that is his plan, but he still feels like he can play a big role.

“I still feel young, I’m ready to run around and make plays and help lead and contribute any way I can,” Bell said. “I’m just happy for the opportunity.”

Bengals coach Zac Taylor expects Bell to make a big impact like he did his first stint in Cincinnati.

“You guys have heard me talk about Vonn a million times, and he’s the ultimate standard setter. His process is always positive in the locker room; tremendous presence,” Taylor said. “He’s been a part of some of the biggest plays in Bengals history and we’re happy to get him back here. We’ve got to create many more of the greatest plays in Bengals history. Very happy that Vonn’s back here.”

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