Panthers' Bell confident in filling void at left tackle
MAY 28, 2014 11:16p ET
CHARLOTTE -- All-Pro Jordan Gross was a mainstay at left tackle for the Carolina Panthers for 11 years with the team. While other positions recycled and faced questions, there was never any doubt as to whom was going to be protecting the quarterback's blindside.
However, much to the chagrin of the Panthers organization, the 33-year-old Gross announced his retirement at season's end despite having just completed one of his better campaigns in recent memory. Gross' departure meant that what had been the most reliable position for a decade instantaneously became a monumental area of concern for fans and the franchise, alike.
Enter Byron Bell, who says he has it all under control.
"Right now, in my heart, I believe I'll be at left tackle," he said. "But wherever the coaching staff feels I'm best at, that's where they'll put me. Either way, I'm just working to be the best Byron Bell I can be to help this team win ball games. But in my heart, I believe I'll go to left."
Confidence has never been an issue for Bell. But then again, when you're an undrafted free agent out of New Mexico, you better have a strong belief in your abilities.
Bell has been the starting right tackle for the better part of his three seasons in the NFL, all of which have been with Carolina. But it hasn't been the easiest time going. There have been many struggles along the way for Bell, who had to learn on the job how to be an NFL tackle. During his rookie season in 2011, Bell committed 14 penalties in 16 games. Things have improved for the Greenville, Texas, native, but at a slow pace. He has allowed 22 sacks in 47 games, including nine last season, which ranked ninth for the most allowed for all tackles.
"I think I've grown a lot," the 25-year-old Bell said. "Right off the top of my head I can think of some downs my rookie year. Against Tennessee, I didn't play so well. Against the Colts, I didn't play so well. But those are learning experiences, and you gain experience through experience.
"I think I've grown a lot on and off the field from 2011 to 2014."
Maybe the most troubling is that Bell ranked tied for 43rd in pass blocking efficiency out of an eligible 58 tackles, according to ProFootballFocus.com, while Gross ranked 10th. However, it's not as though the other possible option at left tackle, Nate Chandler, boasts more experience at left tackle. That's why some fans are in panic mode.
Bell, on the other hand, says all is well.
"Going into my fourth year, my confidence level is very high," he said. "I feel like I can go out here in Week 1 and go 16 straight, and I know for a fact in my heart that I can play left or right tackle and I feel confident I can help this team win ball games."
It hasn't been all doom and gloom for Bell. He's committed just five penalties in each of the past two seasons and he's become a dominant run blocker. Last season, the Panthers averaged 4.23 yards per carry when running behind Bell, the ninth-best mark in the NFL.
"If they put me at left, they put me at left. If I go back to right, I go back to right." Bell said. "I'm not going to argue with it. I'm not going to challenge it. My job is to just come here and play football. If they feel like I shouldn't play, then I'm on the bench."â¨
Bell will definitely be playing, that's pretty much a guarantee. It's just a matter of where.
Left tackle isn't brand new to Bell, who started his final 24 games at New Mexico there. But he does admit that there are a few variances between the two positions that will require a little getting used to.
"The only big difference is that's where the money side is," Bell said of the left tackle position. "You're going to go against the top ends. Other than that, there's really no big difference other than flipping the plays in my mind. Sometimes that's tricky, but that comes with repetition."
Bell is so serious about becoming better and moving to left tackle that he's already dropped 10 pounds from his playing weight last season (339 pounds). He plans to shed 15 more and enter training camp at 315 pounds in order to "move quicker on the edge against speed rushes."
That's all well and good, but Job No. 1, regardless of weight, is to protect the franchise in quarterback Cam Newton. That job is so important for the left tackle that sometimes they've been know to purposely pull the defender to the ground and get a penalty in order to prevent the quarterback from getting crushed.
Bell isn't worried about Cam's health, either.
"C. will be alright," he said. "He's got good feet. He can get out of it and make plays. That's what good quarterbacks do. But we're going to keep him clean."