NFC South: Byron Bell

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera reached deep into his limited French dialect to name Byron Bell as his starting left tackle.

Bell
"He's done such a good job, I'm going to say it's a fait accompli," Rivera said after Tuesday's rain-interrupted practice. "He and I will sit down and have a conversation about it. I'm going to talk to the coaches to make sure we're all set, we're all confident, we're all comfortable.

"[But] he's done a really nice job."

If you're not as versed in French as Rivera, "fait accompli" means an it's an accomplished fact.

That Bell won the job clears up one of the biggest questions entering training camp as the Panthers looked to replace the retired Jordan Gross. Bell, who started at right tackle the past three seasons after being signed in 2011 as an undrafted rookie out of New Mexico, won the job over Nate Chandler.

"He's done some stuff on the left side that he didn't do on the right side that have been impressive," Rivera said of Bell, reminding he is a natural left-hander. "His punch is a little better, his first step is a lot better. He's working off his left side.

"Having seen that, I have confidence he can do the job for us."

Chandler will start at right tackle unless the knee injury that kept him out of Tuesday's practice keeps flaring up as it occasionally has the past couple of weeks.

"Nate has done a great job, too," Rivera said. "Look at what our lines have done in the [preseason] games. We give up a sack or two here, but the thing that has been more than anything else is we've missed some protections rather than guys have been flat-out beaten.

"That's a positive."

The Panthers also have developed decent depth with veteran Garry Williams able to back up at both tackle and guard spots. Chris Scott, whose conditioning was an issue during offseason workouts, also has done well.

Scott replaced rookie Trai Turner (groin) with the first team at right guard on Tuesday. Rivera said it was too early to tell if Turner would be ready for Friday night's preseason game at New England.

"We've got a good group of guys right now," Rivera said. "Knock on wood, we've got some decent depth."
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The offensive line for the Carolina Panthers appears set.

A big question entering training camp, the revamped line looks like this as Carolina ended its stay on Tuesday at Wofford College: Byron Bell, left tackle; Amini Silatolu, left guard; Ryan Kalil, center; Trai Turner, right guard; Nate Chandler, right tackle.

Bell
The only real question entering camp was whether Bell or Chandler would replace the retired Jordan Gross as the left tackle. They flip-flopped between right and left for the first week and a half.

But Bell took most of the reps at left last week and started there in the preseason opener against Buffalo. He took all of the snaps there -- except when he was spelled for what was described as patella tendinitis on Monday -- the past couple of days.

"You can see we're pretty close to settling on a group," general manager Dave Gettleman said. "Now it's a matter of them learning to play with each other, get comfortable, trust each other."

As complementary as coaches were of Bell after his performance against Buffalo, he still appears shaky on the bull rush. He was pushed back into the quarterback against the Bills a couple of times, and Carolina Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy did the same Tuesday during one-on-one pass rush drills.

"We have some work to do," Kalil said "There is going to be some growing pains with this group [compared] with some of the older groups we had. But we have some really tremendous talent that I think will set us up for years to come.

"I have been happy with all of the guys, Byron at left tackle, Trai coming in, first timer. He's been doing a really good job."

A lot more will be learned in Sunday night's preseason game against Kansas City in which the starters will play into the third quarter because of a short turnaround before the third preseason game.

But for now, the line appears set with Bell as the left tackle.

"As we go forward, yes," Coach Ron Rivera said. "This is a big week. This will be a big test for Byron, it'll be a big test for Nate, and we'll get a good feel for it."
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- There has to be some irony that the two Carolina Panthers with arguably the most to prove in Friday's preseason opener have to do it against the Buffalo Bills.

I'm talking about Charles Godfrey and Byron Bell.

Godfrey's 2013 season ended as the team's starting free safety with a torn Achilles in the third quarter of a 24-23 Week 2 loss at Buffalo. He ultimately had his contract restructured, dropping his base salary from $5 million to $750,000, and was moved to cornerback during the offseason.

[+] EnlargeCharles Godfrey
Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY SportsCharles Godfrey's season ended against Buffalo last September.
He's spent most of training camp learning a position he hasn't played since his college days at Iowa seven years ago. It appears, at best, he will be the starting nickelback.

Bell was playing right tackle in the same game. Quarterback Cam Newton was sacked six times. Mario Williams got 4 1/2 of those, most of them against Bell.

Bell was criticized unmercifully by the media and fans for his performance. It's something he's had to work through as he attempts to replace the retired Jordan Gross as the starting left tackle.

Coach Ron Rivera says much of Bell's criticism was unjust. He offered a reminder that Kansas City's Derrick Thomas had his league single-game record seven sacks in 1990 against a Seattle Seahawks tackle that spent 13 years in the league.

"Show me somebody who hasn't been beat," Rivera said. "It's all a part of the game. Good things happen, bad things happen. We move on from there."

Rivera also said what Bell has accomplished since making the roster as an undrafted rookie out of New Mexico in 2011 has been underappreciated.

"He played as a rookie and played against some very, very good players," Rivera said. "And he's done well against some very, very good players and he's struggled against some very, very good players. That's all part of his development. How he learns and how he grows from it will dictate how good he will be."

Godfrey admittedly has grown from his experience. He's starting to get back some of the instincts it takes to be a cornerback.

Both Godfrey and Bell are playing with chips on their shoulders, although it's more noticeable on Bell.

"I hope so," Rivera said. "I think he's got something to prove and I think he knows he's got something to prove. He's been talking a lot to different people, just trying to help himself and get himself right and in the right frame of mind and go out there and do what he can do."

Ironically, it begins Friday night against Buffalo.

Panthers Camp Report: Day 5

July, 29, 2014
Jul 29
6:30
PM ET
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Carolina Panthers training camp from Wofford College:
  • For the second straight day coach Ron Rivera extended practice, only this time was because he liked what he was seeing. He called it the best practice of camp, and he's liked most of the others. The biggest difference today was the energy. It began on a high note when left tackle candidate Byron Bell opened with what he calls his "hopping" dance -- something he learned in his college fraternity at New Mexico -- that fired everyone up. It included one moment in which quarterback Cam Newton hit the ground after bumping into a teammate and then having most of the offense rush to pick him up. OK, so Rivera believes Newton pulled off a "flop." But it showed the camaraderie and chemistry this team is starting to build. And the energy was there, even if it could be attributed to cooler weather (low 80s) and that Wednesday is a day off.
  • Speaking of Bell, this was the first day he's stood out over Nate Chandler at left tackle enough to say he's the leading candidate to replace the retired Jordan Gross. Still too close to call, but I'm starting to lean towards Bell.
  • The Panthers are counting on second-round draft pick Kony Ealy, a defensive end out of Missouri, to strengthen the league's best pass rush. They are counting on him to add more flexibility to the line with his ability to play end and tackle. So far he's been relatively quiet, not doing anything to make himself stand out. On the plus side, he's not done anything to draw heavy criticism.
  • The Panthers may have made a tactical error in waiving sixth-round pick Tyler Gaffney, out for the year with a knee injury. They figured he would clear waivers, allowing them to put the former Stanford running back on injured reserve without carrying his salary on the current 90-man or late 53-man roster before going to IR. They got outsmarted when New England claimed Gaffney on Monday afternoon. Rivera was surprised by New England's move -- and disappointed. The Panthers really liked Gaffney and no team wants to give away draft picks like that. Gaffney could have been a potential replacement for DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart when their contracts expired in a couple of years.
  • Undrafted rookie wide receiver Marcus Lucas (Missouri) had one of those days when he seemed to catch everything in his direction. With the next two to three receiver spots open after Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, it's not unthinkable that Lucas could slip into the mix. Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King have had moments, but have not been consistent. Tiquan Underwood has the coolest hair in camp, but he hasn't consistently stood out. With Brenton Bersin playing well and Lucas shining in spots, you could see a few surprises on the final roster. Either that or the Panthers will watch the waiver wire for receivers cut by other teams.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Carolina Panthers running back Mike Tolbert looks like a boxer the way the Pillsbury Doughboy looks like a swimsuit model.

The same for left tackle candidate Byron Bell.

But both spent a part of their summer training with boxers to help take their game to the next level. Both also believe firmly if they met in the ring he would be the winner.

Imagine the introduction.

Bell
Tolbert
In this corner, from Carrollton, Georgia, weighing in at 5-foot-9 and 237 pounds, the Tub of Goo, Plate of Paste, Bowling Ball, heavyweight contender Mike Tolbert.

In the other corner we have a former Golden Gloves contender, weighing in at 6-5 and 330 pounds, the pride of Greenville, Texas, Byron "Ring My" Bell.

Are you ready to rumble?

Tolbert believes he is. With his cardio capacity now off the charts, he doesn't believe there's a player in the locker room that could take him. He said Bell might be the closest contender, but pointed out it's been since high school that the fourth-year player out of New Mexico competed in Golden Gloves.

He apparently hadn't heard Bell spent time this summer in Ohio with his old boxing trainer.

Bell admits Tolbert might be quicker, but when it comes to arm reach his advantage would be too much to overcome.

"Tolbert, if he thought he was going to get in [for a punch] I would touch him on his chin and he wouldn't know what hit him,'' Bell said defiantly on Sunday before the Panthers practiced in pads for the first time in training camp.

But the plan isn't to use their boxing skills to beat on each other or any of their teammates. The plan is to use their skills to help the 2014 Panthers become the first to have consecutive winning seasons in team history.

Through their training, both have slimmed down 13 pounds, Tolbert down from the 250 that made him a goal-line force and Bell from 343 that made him a solid run blocker at right tackle.

Tolbert practiced the art of what he called "cross boxing'' -- cross training involving boxing to improve the overall shape -- at the House of Boxing in San Diego. He got good enough at it that he actually sparred with real heavyweight fighters.

"It's man on man,'' Tolbert said. "It's the ultimate sport of either you win or I win. That takes a lot of intensity. Everybody knows the mentality I have is that I will never let the man across from me beat me.''

Tolbert never has felt better. He insists the extra weight was a hindrance and that the lighter version will make him faster and just as powerful on fourth-and-1.

Coach Ron Rivera, who has shed more than 30 pounds himself, likes what he's seen so far.

"Oh, yeah, Round is in good shape,'' he said.

Bell returned to boxing to improve his footwork and hand placement that will be necessary when facing some of the league's top pass-rushers and help him beat Nate Chandler for the left tackle job. He's not so sure the extra weight was a hindrance, but he likes fitting into smaller clothes.

Neither is a player you'd want to mess with on the field. Tolbert would just as soon run over a defender than around him. If you need proof, go back and look at the way he blasted Atlanta's William Moore to set up a touchdown in last year's regular-season finale.

Ask him who he models his boxing style after and he declares it's a mix between Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather.

Cover your ears.

Bell arguably was involved in more scuffles during last year's training camp than any other player. He didn't mention who he models his boxing style after, but judging by his girth it would have to be George Foreman -- late in his career.

"I'm not going out there to fight my teammates, but I've got to come out here and be physical so I can transfer it to Sunday,'' Bell said.

Sundays are when both want to be ready to rumble, and both believe boxing will help.

"[My trainer], he incorporates a lot of football movement, a lot of hand-eye coordination, a lot of footwork, a lot of cardio,'' Tolbert said "It's a pro boxer's workout. It's definitely tough, but I mean, the strong survive and I've got to be ready.''

 

Panthers Camp Report: Day 3

July, 27, 2014
Jul 27
7:15
PM ET
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Carolina Panthers training camp from Wofford College:
  • If you were looking for something definitive at the left tackle position after the first practice in pads, sorry. Byron Bell and Nate Chandler both got opportunities there and both did well in giving quarterback Cam Newton time to throw. Bell started off on the left side during 7-on-7 drills and Chandler began team drills there. In one-on-one drills Chandler did a nice job of taking defensive end Charles Johnson to the ground once. The Panthers will continue to use both players there for the next few weeks as they look to replace retired Jordan Gross, who has lost so much weight he could play tight end or wide receiver. Coach Ron Rivera wants to make a decision on the starter after the second preseason game. The Panthers will face some good pass-rushers in Buffalo end Mario Williams and Kansas City linebackers Justin Houston and Dee Ford from a 3-4 set. Williams had 4.5 sacks in Week 2 against Carolina last season with most coming against Bell playing right tackle. Stay tuned. Too close to call, but both are showing potential.
  • Tight end Greg Olsen was wide open on a touchdown catch down the left sideline. Tight end Ed Dickson made a diving catch on a slant pattern. Tight end Brandon Williams made a nice over-the-shoulder catch deep in traffic. Tight end Mike McNeill made a tough catch in traffic over the middle. Tight end D.C. Jefferson made a solid catch in stride about 25 yards deep. Notice a theme here? The Panthers have more than enough choices to complement Olsen as they go to a two-tight end set. It's a luxury they haven't had since Jeremy Shockey was here in 2011. And I haven't mentioned Richie Brockel, who is listed as a TE/FB. The team kept four tight ends last season, and Rivera says there is a scenario where it could keep five this year. This definitely softens the blow of losing the top four wide receivers from last season.
  • Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin made an acrobatic, twisting catch on a high pass from Cam Newton on the first play of 7-on-7 drills. He snagged a somewhat high bullet over the middle on the first play of team drills. He caught a nice out pattern on the first series of another team session. In other words, the 28th pick of the draft is becoming quite comfortable with Newton in a hurry. A lot of this may have to do with the two staying in Charlotte, North Carolina, to work out together while the team was off from June 19 through last Thursday. If they continue to develop this chemistry people may forget Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver who was cut during the offseason.
  • Philly Brown went to the ground and did what appeared to be 20 pushups after having a punt bounce off his chest early in practice. There were drops by a few other returners as the Panthers attempt to replace Ted Ginn Jr., who signed with Arizona in free agency. Don't think Rivera didn't notice it. "The thing we have to understand is first and foremost we have to catch the ball. I could care less if we fair catch it every time, but we've got to catch it.'' The leader in the clubhouse for the job might be Antoine Cason, who returned punts at San Diego while Rivera was there. It's interesting that speedster Tiquan Underwood hasn't been given a chance there yet, but Rivera said others could be added to the mix that so far includes Cason, Kenjon Barner and Brown. Bottom line, the Panthers will miss Ginn much more here more than they will at receiver.
  • Carolina holds its first morning practice on Monday after two night practices and a 3:10 p.m. session. Sunday's workout was somewhat sloppy, and Rivera reminded players of that afterwards, telling them he "expected a better practice tomorrow.''

Camp preview: Carolina Panthers

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
10:00
AM ET
» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

 NFL Nation's David Newton examines the three biggest issues facing the Carolina Panthers heading into training camp.

Offensive line: In many ways, the success of the Panthers comes down to how well this revamped group comes together. With left tackle Jordan Gross retired, there's a chance only center Ryan Kalil returns to the position he started at the end of last season. It's not as dire as many think, though. The Panthers are high on starting right tackle Byron Bell or right guard Nate Chandler moving into Gross' spot to protect Cam Newton's blind side. The loser of that battle probably will start on the right side. Carolina also has veteran Garry Williams, coming off an ACL injury, ready to play either tackle or guard. The Panthers love rookie Trai Turner at right guard and Chris Scott has experience there if needed. Amini Silatolu had won the starting left guard spot last season before suffering a knee injury in the fourth game. He has 18 career starts, so he's solid. It all comes down to chemistry for a team that wants to rely on the run and give Newton freedom to improvise as he does so well.

Wide receivers: No position has drawn more scrutiny during the offseason at Carolina with the top-four receivers from 2013 gone. The biggest reason was the decision to let all-time leading receiver Steve Smith go. When Carolina didn't sign a big-time name to replace Smith, the naysayers became more outspoken. But here's my take. The Panthers are better at receiver than they were a year ago. Nothing against Smith, but at 35 he was no better than a No. 2 receiver and at the end of his career. Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon really weren't big losses when you look at it closely. Hixon wouldn't have been a loss at all were it not for the game-winning touchdown against New Orleans. The key here will be chemistry, but first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin looks like a red zone beast at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. Free agent signees Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant are solid possession receivers, and more dependable than the players they replaced. Who steps up as the fourth receiver will be the biggest question, whether it's free agent Tiquan Underwood or one of the young receivers. The Panthers plan to run a lot more two tight-end sets makes that less critical.

Cam Newton: I was going to go with the secondary here. The Panthers are replacing three-fourths of their starters. But that position is as good or better than it was this time last season, so I'm going with the franchise quarterback here. The two-time Pro Bowl selection is coming off surgery to tighten the ligaments in his left ankle. The diagnosis is the ankle will be better than ever, which makes him even more of a threat as a runner since he'll be pain free for the first time since college. I mention Newton here not because of the ankle, but because his ability to take his game to another level will be more important than ever with changes to the line and receiving corps. The leadership and consistency he showed last season will be called upon even more. Just because of the changes he can't be lulled into thinking he has to do it all as he did his first two seasons. But as former left tackle Jordan Gross said last season, as Newton goes so goes the Panthers.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers begin a three-day minicamp on Tuesday, their final tune-up before reporting for training camp on July 24.

Here are five things to keep an eye on:

  • Cam Newton -- The fourth-year quarterback and coach Ron Rivera left open the possibility last week that Newton will be cleared medically to fully participate. Don't count on it. There is no real reason for Newton to risk a setback with the left ankle that required surgery in March for just three days of practice. Experts say it typically takes four months for the ankle to be completely recovered, which would end the rehabilitation in mid-July. Newton may be feeling good enough to throw and dance -- as we've seen him at some off-the-field functions -- but as he reminded, he'll step on a rock walking to the stadium and be reminded there's still healing to be done. My guess is you'll see him out there throwing some with his new receivers, but not in full team drills. It's not worth it at this point.
  • [+] EnlargeNate Chandler and Byron Bell
    Bob Leverone/AP PhotoCarolina Panthers offensive tackle Nate Chandler (left) holds a blocking pad as teammate Byron Bell extends his arms during drills on June 11.
    Left tackle -- I easily could have said the entire offensive line here since there is a complete overhaul other than center, where Pro Bowler Ryan Kalil is set. But finding a replacement for retired left tackle Jordan Gross is the most critical since that player is responsible for protecting Newton's blind side. Byron Bell and Nate Chandler split the role during organized team activities, and this will be a rehash of what they've learned. The real battle won't start until training camp when they put the pads on. Most believe Bell, moving from starting right tackle, has the inside track on the position. He was the first to work at left tackle during OTAs. But Chandler was working out at tackle before injuries last season forced him to move to right guard, where he started the final eight regular-season games. A former defensive tackle, he has solid footwork and the size (6-4, 310) to play the position. He just doesn't have experience. Working against defensive end Greg Hardy, who led the team in sacks last season with 15, will tell a lot. If you can hold your own against Hardy, then you can hold your own against most in the NFL. It's the same trial by fire Gross got with former Panther Julius Peppers across from him.
  • Wide receiver pairings -- Free agents Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin were paired a lot in OTAs when the Panthers went to three-receiver sets. The next grouping I noticed a lot included Tiquan Underwood, Tavarres King and Brenton Bersin. Trimming the wide receivers corps to six will be the toughest of any position. Outside the top combination, the rest are trying to earn a spot and prove worthy. You'll see a lot of King, Marvin McNutt, Toney Clemons, Kealoha Pilares and Philly Brown as the Panthers try to replace their top four receivers from last season. Cotchery and Avant provide experience, and Benjamin provides a big target (6-5, 240) that will be tough to keep off the field. Underwood is the most likely to round out the top four. But one of the reasons the Panthers let all-time leading receiver Steve Smith go was to give the young receivers a chance to prove themselves that they otherwise wouldn't have with Smith taking most of the repetitions. This is their chance.
  • Rookies -- Four rookies have a legitimate shot to make major contributions this season, with two possibly starting. As mentioned above, you can pencil Benjamin into the top three at wide receiver. He'll especially be a big target inside the red zone. Second-round pick Kony Ealy, a defensive end out of Missouri, won't get to show how his pass-rushing abilities translate into the NFL for real until he gets in pads. He won't start, but the Panthers hope he's a regular in the rotation at end, as well as tackle. Third-round pick Trai Turner spent much of OTAs as the starting right guard with veteran Chris Scott dealing with conditioning and -- as Rivera said last week -- health issues. If he can hold his own against Carolina's big tackles, he has a chance to be a steal. The fourth rookie to make a big impression thus far is fifth-round pick Bene Benwikere, a cornerback out of San Jose State. He already may be the front-runner for the nickel spot, but his real competition won't be there until training camp when Charles Godfrey is expected to return fully from an Achilles injury that ended his season in the second game last season. Godfrey is making the transition from safety back to corner, where he started most of his college year.
  • Secondary -- You could just say cornerback here. The safeties appear to be set with veteran free-agent acquisitions Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud. Finding a replacement for cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who signed with Minnesota, and possibly upgrade on the other side where undrafted rookie Melvin White started most of last season, will be key. Free agent Antoine Cason has experience in this system from his days at San Diego, where the defensive coordinator was Rivera. But Cason couldn't make the starting lineup at Arizona last season, so he still has a lot to prove. Josh Norman has made some spectacular plays in practice, just as he did the past two seasons in practice and preseason games, but he's yet to translate that into games on a regular basis. Rookie Benwikere has impressed in OTAs at the nickel spot, so don't rule him out. But like the offensive line and other areas in question, this won't be completely ironed out until training camp when Godfrey (as mentioned above) gets into the mix. Regardless, the Panthers are ahead of last season at this point at least in terms of experience.
  • Bonus watch: The heat. With temperatures expected in the mid-90s and high humidity, Rivera moved practices from midday-early afternoon to 10:15 a.m.-12:15 p.m. ET. It was a smart move to avoid heat-related injuries in June. It'll be plenty hot at camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You hardly would recognize former Carolina Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross, who has lost more than 60 pounds since retiring and leaving the job to protect quarterback Cam Newton's blind side in question.

The players trying to replace Gross have trimmed down as well.

Not that drastically, mind you.

[+] EnlargeByron Bell, Cam Newton and Nate Chandler.
AP Photo/Mike McCarnByron Bell, left, has slimmed down this offseason and believes he can play left tackle, protecting the blind side of quarterback Cam Newton, center.
Byron Bell has dropped from the 345 pounds he was as the starting right tackle a year ago to 321. He hopes continuing to cut out fried foods -- including his favorite, catfish -- will help get him to 315 by the time training camp starts on July 24.

Nate Chandler, the starting right guard for much of 2013, has trimmed about 10 pounds to 310.

Both did it to improve their agility, a necessity when handling the top pass-rushers in the NFL. It's probably not bad for their long-term health, either, as Bell mentioned in relation to Gross.

"He just added 10 more years to his life," Bell said as the Panthers continued organized offseason workouts. "You don't need to carry around that kind of weight."

Bell doesn't believe in carrying around extra stress, either. When critics question his ability to make the move to left side, he smiles and reminds that he has a mother and three brothers -- including a twin who died in a fire at the family's Texas home in 2007 -- that "loves me."

"I believe I can [play left tackle] in my heart," said Bell, who was a left tackle at the University of Mexico and in high school before the Panthers moved him to the right side. "I believe I can. That's my dominant side hand, anyway.

"I feel comfortable over there. But if it's right tackle, left tackle, coach needs me to come off the bench, whatever I need to do to help this team win, that's what I'm here for."

The critics are out there, though.

Many refer to the 4.5 sacks -- most on Bell's side -- that Buffalo's Mario Williams had in the second game last season against Carolina.

Some are armed with the rating of minus-2.8 Bell was given by Pro Football Focus last season. To put that in perspective, Gross had a rating of 33.5.

"I don't read none of that," Bell said. "I get people who tell me things and I listen to it, but for the most part I'm, 'All right, that's cool.' There's nothing easy about pro football. If anybody could do it, they would come out and do it."

The Panthers believe he can do the job, at least to the point they didn't see anybody better worth taking with the 28th pick of the draft or anybody worth spending big bucks on in free agency outside of Cincinnati's Anthony Collins.

Gross believes Bell can do the job as well, saying during his retirement news conference that criticism against his former teammate was unfair.

But most importantly, Bell believes in Bell. He reminds that he didn't give up a sack during his senior year at New Mexico "against some top guys ... believe it or not, that's in the pros."

"I'm just going to come out and do my job and help this team get to 10 wins plus," Bell said.

Shedding the weight -- as well as the criticism -- can only be a plus.
Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy arrived at practice on Wednesday wearing headphones that protected him from the outside world, including those who lined the sidewalk waiting on him. He left practice flanked by running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, who kept the outside world from getting close enough to ask questions.

"He ain't talking today," Stewart told a throng of reporters trying to get the first public comments from Hardy since his May 13 arrest on domestic violence charges.

[+] EnlargeGreg Hardy
Bob Leverone/AP PhotoPanthers DE Greg Hardy gives a thumbs up to his teammates as he makes his way onto the field Wednesday in Charlotte, N.C.
Then came the first public comment.

"Got to get to weights, guys," said Hardy, looking over his shoulder with a smile.

That was it.

On a day when right tackle Byron Bell was discussing his transition from right to left tackle and quarterback Cam Newton was throwing passes -- at least for public viewing -- for the first time since undergoing ankle surgery were significant topics, the first player most reporters approached was Hardy.

Not that anybody expected the 2013 Pro Bowl selection to talk. But on the chance he might, questions had to be asked.

Interesting, though, the Panthers didn't seem to be questioning Hardy at all. From head coach Ron Rivera to fellow end Charles Johnson to Bell, they were focused on Hardy the football player.

If the charges Hardy faces from the incident with ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder were a distraction, you couldn't tell it by him or his teammates.

"Not at all," Bell said. "I'm at left tackle the first play and he's flying out the box, so that's not interfering with him. For the most part, as far as I'm concerned, it ain't bothering him, it ain't bothering the team.

"He's coming out here flying around. He looks like [the old] Hardy, so the 50 sacks might come back up again. He'll be ready to go, and I believe that."

Bell was referring to Hardy's prediction last summer that he would have 50 sacks, more than doubling the NFL single-season record. He didn't get close, but he tied the team's single-season record with 15.

That was good enough to earn Hardy the franchise tag, which guaranteed him $13.1 million this season. He's getting $1.3 million of that in advance to guarantee his presence in all of the voluntary and non-voluntary offseason workouts as Wednesday's was.

So it came as no surprise that Hardy was in attendance and focused on the field -- not what's happening off it.

"Greg's looked really good," Rivera said. "It's tough, because we're not in pads, and so when he comes off the ball the tackles can't really strike him the way you normally would in pads. So the advantage goes to him right now. He looked very quick, very athletic, doing some really good things."

And these are some of the reasons the Panthers were disappointed with Hardy's arrest, as Carolina understands what he means to the defense that ranked second in the NFL last season.

"Whatever happened, it happened," said Bell, who at one point got into a small exchange with Hardy during practice. "It's over now and in the past. He just wants to play football and so do I."

Over is over-simplifying things. Hardy is scheduled for court on June 27. He still faces sanctions from the court if found guilty, which his attorney contends he's not, and also potential sanctions from the NFL and/or Panthers.

But for now, it's all about football for him and his teammates. They've apparently rallied around him, just as Stewart and Williams did on this day.

That's what players and teams typically do in the storm of controversy. They keep the outside world from being a distraction for the team the way Johnson told Hardy to keep it from being a distraction to him.

"Come to work," Johnson said. "It's what we do. We work and let our work talk for itself."
The Carolina Panthers have the 28th pick in the 2014 NFL draft after finishing last season with a 12-4 record. Their primary needs remain offensive tackle and wide receiver after free agency, with tackle holding a slight edge.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.'s latest mock draft is out on ESPN Insider today. He picks the top two rounds for each team, and his latest for the Panthers are players whose stock are on the rise.

video
ORLANDO, Fla. -- One by one reporters from around the NFL stopped by the table of Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who under strict orders from his wife was eating a healthy plate of fruit at Wednesday's NFC coaches' breakfast.

One by one they asked about wide receiver Steve Smith and Carolina's decision to cut its all-time leading receiver, which Rivera and management believe was healthy for the Panthers.

The rest of those at the NFL owners meeting apparently aren't so sure. I've had my doubts as well. So Rivera spent well over half of his 45-minute interview period talking about the newest addition to the Baltimore Ravens.

He finally had enough.

He finally became animated -- at least for him -- and defended general manager Dave Gettleman's decision to part ways with one of the most popular players in team history. He talked passionately about how Gettleman took a hit for the team.

He expressed his frustration over reports that it was personal and that Smith was a distraction to the locker room. He made it clear that it was neither.

Finally.

Had he done this two weeks ago, we might have moved on to another topic for the defending NFC South champions.

And it is time to move on.

The Panthers have. They believe they are headed in the right direction even though much of the league believes they are headed for a hard crash after a 12-4 season.

Smith
That is understandable. Even Rivera was a bit nervous when it became obvious the Panthers would not have their top four wide receivers from last season and quarterback Cam Newton needed ankle surgery.

But as I said early in the process, what did they really lose? Not that Rivera wanted to lose Brandon LaFell, or even Ted Ginn Jr. But when he explained that Carolina averaged more than 100 yards rushing in 15 of 16 games last season, and in doing so the wide receivers collectively averaged 10 catches a game, you knew what he meant.

Ten catches? That's not much to replace.

The likes of veteran Jerricho Cotchery, along with his kiddie corps of Tiquan Underwood, Marvin McNutt, Tavarres King and whoever else you want to throw into the mix, surely can catch 10 passes cumulatively.

Now, many of those have to be the big catches. While Smith's numbers were down last season, he still made many of the big third- or fourth-down receptions that made 2013's turnaround possible.

None were bigger than the 19-yard catch into double coverage on fourth-and-10 from deep in Miami territory with 2:33 remaining. That led to a last-minute 20-16 victory that extended Carolina's winning streak to seven straight.

But surely Cotchery, 31, can replace that. He had 10 touchdown catches last season for Pittsburgh. That is more than Smith (4) and No. 2 LaFell (5) combined for in 2013.

A funny aside. The Panthers never intended to go an entire week after releasing Smith without signing a wide receiver, which added to the anxiety of many. They wanted to bring Cotchery in early, but he was on vacation and couldn't.

[+] EnlargeRoman Harper
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesCoach Ron Rivera is confident the additions of veterans like safety Roman Harper will keep Carolina on track despite its losses in free agency.
"I really do wish people and hope people will understand there's a process," Rivera said of the team's plan. "If you do things the right way you have a chance going forward. That to me is what we've done."

And the Panthers aren't done. They plan to add other pieces in free agency and the draft. Some of them will be key.

But with the front seven of the league's No. 2 defense intact, and with Newton expected to be better than ever after surgery for a left ankle issue that has been lingering since college, Rivera has just as much or more to work with now than he had a year ago.

It's not like he has the Jacksonville Jaguars' roster.

There still are some key areas -- the secondary and offensive line at the top of the list -- that must be addressed. If the season started today, right tackle Byron Bell likely would start at left tackle, with Nate Chandler or Garry Williams on the right side.

But is that so bad? Rivera really likes Bell, who played left tackle in college, even though public sentiment is that this is a disaster. Sometimes you have to trust the coach's instinct.

The Panthers already have a Pro Bowl center in Ryan Kalil, and the guard situation is solid with Amini Silatolu and Edmund Kugbila back from injuries that kept them from starting last season.

So the line could be as good or better than a year ago.

The biggest concern in the secondary is the nickel back. Rivera likes the competition he has for the two cornerback spots in Antoine Cason, Melvin White, Josh Norman and Josh Thomas.

He believes Charles Godfrey, if he returns healthy from last season's Achilles injury, can play the nickel as well as free safety. He's thrilled to have New Orleans free agent Roman Harper at strong safety, and if Godfrey doesn't return, Rivera has Robert Lester and a few other young players who played well in spurts last season.

It's really no different than it was this past August when the big questions were the offensive line and secondary.

So Rivera is upbeat. He's ready to talk about something -- no offense -- other than Smith.

"We're headed in the direction of being a better team," he insisted.

Think of it like his breakfast. Sometimes you have to eat fresh fruit instead of bacon and eggs that taste good but aren't exactly good for you in the long run.
No member of the Carolina Panthers 'offensive line took more heat last season than right tackle Byron Bell. Now, it appears, he'll get a chance to prove if he can protect quarterback Cam Newton's blind side.

Bell
The Panthers on Monday tendered the restricted free agent, as well as exclusive rights player Chris Scott.

This occurred shortly after Carolina re-signed offensive lineman Garry Williams to a one-year deal and fullback/tight end Richie Brockel to a two-year deal.

Coach Ron Rivera mentioned Bell as a possible candidate to replace Jordan Gross at left tackle when the 11-year veteran retired a few weeks ago.

Bell, 6-foot-5 and 340 pounds, started 14 games at right tackle this past season and has started 41 of 47 career games at Carolina. He first came under fire last season after Buffalo's Mario Williams had 4.5 sacks from his side in the second game.

The heat continued most of the season. Although Bell at times played well, Pro Football Focus gave him a season rating of minus-2.8. To put that in perspective, Gross had a rating of 33.5.

That's not the kind of rating a franchise quarterback wants to hear.

Nevertheless, Rivera and Gross said Bell played much better than people gave him credit for, and both endorsed him as a possibility at left tackle.

Filling the left tackle position from within would be a huge benefit for Carolina, which had only about $7 million left under the salary cap before the day began. With a strong draft class at tackle, the Panthers also might look to fill one of the two starting spots with a first- or second-round pick.

And don't forget, Williams has started 13 games at right tackle.

Scott (6-4 and 320 pounds) gives the Panthers more depth at guard. He started the first eight games this past season -- one at left and seven at right -- before suffering a knee injury against Atlanta in October.

Monday's moves won't draw big headlines, but they could mean the Panthers won't be heavily involved in free agency for offensive linemen -- at least not a high-priced tackle.

That's big considering the needs for upgrades at cornerback and wide receiver.
The Carolina Panthers secured two of their own free agents Monday in an attempt to shore up the running game.

Offensive lineman Garry Williams, scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, signed a one-year deal. Tight end/fullback Richie Brockel, a restricted free agent, got a two-year deal.

Williams could figure into Carolina's plans at guard and tackle. He was the starter at right guard entering last season but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Seattle.

He has 21 starts since signing as an undrafted free agent from Kentucky in 2009. His presence at right guard gives Carolina more flexibility if it chooses to give Nate Chandler, who was working at tackle before becoming the regular at right guard due to injuries, a shot at replacing left tackle Jordan Gross.

Williams also has started 13 games at right tackle, so he could figure into the mix there if the Panthers choose to move starter Byron Bell into Gross' spot.

Coach Ron Rivera said at Gross' recent retirement news conference that Bell and Chandler could be in the mix.

Bell also is a restricted free agent, so look for an announcement on him before free agency begins at 4 p.m. ET Tuesday.

Brockel is a big contributor on special teams as well as a factor in the running game when Carolina brings in a second tight end or fullback for blocking.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was fitting that construction at Bank of America Stadium forced the Carolina Panthers to hold Wednesday's retirement news conference for left tackle Jordan Gross in the visitor's locker room.

As the landscape of Carolina's playground changes, so does the landscape of the team -- particularly the offensive line.

There's a chance in 2014 that center Ryan Kalil is the only starter at the same position he was when last season ended. It's not an enviable position for a team looking to get back to the playoffs, but it easily could happen.

Here's how looking at last year's starters:

Left tackle -- Gross. We know he's gone. Coach Ron Rivera said his replacement could come from one of three players on the existing roster in right tackle Byron Bell, fifth-year player Bruce Campbell or Nate Chandler, a backup tackle before injuries forced him into the lineup at right guard. If it's not one of those, then it'll be a free agent or draft pick. Regardless, a new starter.

Left guard -- Travelle Wharton. He started the final 14 games there, including the playoffs. But he was signed after starter Amini Silatolu was injured in training camp. There's a good chance the 32-year-old Wharton, a free agent, won't be re-signed. And even if he is it's likely a healthy Silatolu will get first dibs on the starting job. Or maybe it'll be Chris Scott, who started there in the opener before moving to the right side to replace the injured Gary Williams (ACL). Don't count out Williams, either.

Center -- Kalil. Four Pro Bowls since 2008. He's not going anywhere.

Right guard -- Nate Chandler. He played well, starting most of the final nine games after Scott suffered a knee injury in the first Atlanta game. He kept the job even after Scott was healthy. But suppose Scott beats him out in camp? Or Chandler gets the left tackle job. Or Edmund Kugbila, last year's fourth-round pick that spent the season on injured reserve, could take the job. Don't forget as I said above Williams, who started there the first game before the season-ending knee injury. Don't count on Geoff Hangartner. He plans on riding into the sunset with Gross unless something dramatically changes last minute.

Right tackle -- Bell. He took a lot of heat last season for allowing sacks, and according to Gross much of it was undeserved. Gross, like Rivera, said Bell should have a shot at left tackle. If he gets that job, there's an opening on the right side. There could be anyway if the coaching staff feels that heat was deserved and an adequate replacement can be found.

And don't forget, the Panthers certainly will sign a free agent offensive lineman or two and draft at least one. General manager Dave Gettleman likes to build from the inside out with what he called "hog mollies'' after taking a pair of defensive tackles with Carolina's first two picks in the 2013 draft.

I often am wary of teams with a new front line. But like Bank of America Stadium, it could be better when the renovations are completed.

Let Gross explain.

"I always said I don't want to leave until I felt like things were in good order, and they are,'' he said on Wednesday. "They should be for a long time, and that's going to be regardless of whether I am here or not.

"And that's a beautiful thing.''

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider