Panthers DE Keiser, OT Bell show preseason matters

Go ahead, you try telling Carolina’s Byron Bell and Thomas

Keiser the NFL preseason doesn’t matter.

They know better.

Bell and Keiser arrived at Panthers training camp last summer as

undrafted rookies and heavy underdogs to make the 53-man roster.

Both overcame those odds after strong performances in the preseason

and are now expected to be key contributors for the Panthers.

Bell made the opening-day roster last year, started 12 games at

right tackle and is now viewed as the team’s long-term answer at

that position. Keiser’s relentless motor prompted the Panthers (No.

20 in AP Pro 32) to sign him to the practice squad, where he

eventually fought his way onto the roster and registered four sacks

in eight games as a reserve defensive end.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said both should serve as motivation

for other undrafted rookies and first-year players who think

they’re facing an uphill battle to make the roster entering the

preseason, which kicks off Saturday night against the Houston

Texans (No. 6).

Rivera reminded players this week that because of injuries the

Panthers used 17 extra guys last season – many of those went to

training camp with the team.

”Right now it’s an opportunity to show us that, hey, if you

have a redeemable quality where even if we let you go at the end of

training camp we can still bring you back,” Rivera said. ”So

they’re not only fighting for a roster spot or a practice squad

spot now, they’re fighting for the future.”

Rivera said the coaches place huge emphasis on games when it

comes to choosing the team’s final roster in late August.

”I think the preseason is definitely huge for guys showing

their value to the team,” Keiser said. ”That was how I became

relevant in the coaches’ eyes last year, playing the six-technique

and knocking the tight ends off the ball. That was the first little

thing where they started thinking, hey, maybe there’s something

with this guy.”

Bell actually missed the first two preseason games last year

with an injury, but came on strong after getting extensive playing

time in the final two.

”I played pretty well in the last preseason game and I think

that’s what saved me,” Bell said.

Not that there wasn’t some anxiety for Bell along the way.

Looking back he acknowledged being a little nervous heading in for

his first NFL action after playing his college football at New

Mexico.

”I was nerve wrecking and, quite frankly, I was a little

star-struck at first,” Bell said. ”But at the end of the day it’s

just football. That’s all it is. That’s the way you have to think

of it.”

Keiser said he learned a new approach to the game last

preseason.

On the day before Carolina’s preseason opener, the Panthers

practiced in full pads – something teams don’t do during the

regular season.

”It was weird for me and I was a little confused thinking,

`Aren’t we playing a game tomorrow?”’ Keiser said. ”So I showed

up at the stadium and treated it like a practice. I just went out

and tried to fly around and make the most of it. I stayed really

loose and I ended up playing really well and figured I was on to

something.”

He took that same approach into the regular season when he was

activated.

”I look back on my college career and realized I was probably

wound too tight for most of those games,” said Keiser, who played

at Stanford. ”That preseason game just changed my whole mentality

about how I prepared for a game. You want to have that focus but

you don’t want to be too tight. I just said I’m going to play as

fast as I can and know my assignments and stuff will fall into

place.”

The NFL has discussed the possibility of shortening the

preseason to two games, although that idea has been shelved for

future debate.

Right now they’ll stick with four.

Bell said if it ever is reduced to two games it might make it

tough on undrafted rookies to prove themselves to coaches.

”They show what you can do, especially with the coaches who are

making the decision on whether they keep you,” Bell said. ”It’s a

chance to show the coaches what you’re about.”

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