The starting left tackle job was Byron Bell’s to lose, and Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Bell has all but won it.
“He’s done such a good job. I’m going to say it, it’s a fait accompli,” Rivera said Tuesday, meaning it’s been decided but Bell had yet to hear it. “I want him to continue to play well. He and I will sit down and have a conversation about it. I’m going to sit down and talk with the coaches and make sure we’re all set, confident and comfortable.”
The announcement ends a half-year debate over who would take the place of Jordan Gross, who retired during the winter, and who will protect quarterback Cam Newton’s blind side.
Bell and Nate Chandler were the leading candidates after the Panthers didn’t add a left tackle candidate in free agency or the draft, and the two flip-flopped for most of organized team activities and minicamp.
The flopping tapered off into the first week of camp and eventually ceased as Rivera and the coaching staff saw enough from Bell, a former undrafted free agent and starting right tackle, to give him the job.
“He’s done some things on the left side that he didn’t do on the right side that have been impressive,” Rivera said. “But the biggest thing we keep forgetting is, he’s a natural left-hander.
“His punch is a lot better, his first step is a little bit better. And again that’s because he’s working off his left side. Having seen that, I have confidence that he can do the job for us. But we want to continue to watch him. He’s taken some big steps.”
Chandler sat out of Tuesday’s practice with a knee injury. Rivera said he likes what Chandler has brought but didn’t rule out Garry Williams at right tackle as Chandler continues to battle injury and the coaches evaluate the line.
Injury updates: Rookie right guard Trai Turner sat out of practice with a strained groin he suffered Sunday in the win against Kansas City.
Turner, who has been the starter in both exhibitions, played 15 snaps before getting injured.
“They did a lot of work with him inside the training room. We’ll see how he reacts to that,” Rivera said. “The next day is the most important day. If he comes out and he’s feeling pretty doggone good, I can expect him to practice. If not we’ll have to work him a little bit longer.”
Turner played well in the exhibitions and he’s projected to be the Week 1 starter. Chris Scott took first-team reps in his place Tuesday, and Rivera said he’s been impressed with Scott’s conditioning.
Linebacker Chase Blackburn (back) missed practice again while receiving treatment inside the stadium. He will also be evaluated Wednesday.
Tight end Mike McNeill (knee) and running back Darrin Reaves (knee) returned to practice after missing about a week each.
More practice: Two more jobs will be available by the time the rosters are trimmed in the coming weeks.
The NFL announced practice squads will increase from eight to 10 players for the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
“You could always use extra players, and it also bodes well for your future and developing guys,” Rivera said. “I think that’s a plus – more guys get opportunities, more guys get chances to play. That’s what you want. You want guys to be around that you can develop, teach and coach up.”
The Panthers carry six of the eight practice-squad players they finished last season with on their current roster, including receiver Brenton Bersin, linebacker Ben Jacobs and quarterback Matt Blanchard. The team must go from 90 to 75 by Aug. 26 and to 53 by Aug. 30.
Charity work: Defensive end Charles Johnson donated 750 pairs of Nike shoes to his home county’s school system.
Through his foundation, Johnson sent the shoes to the Pulaski County (Ga.) Schools superintendent’s office. He outfitted the entire football team of his alma mater, Hawkinsville High, with cleats and gave the girls’ and boys’ basketball teams shoes.
For a second consecutive year, the Cam Newton Foundation is having the “Super Cam Club,” a program that encourages people to pledge $5, $10, $25 or $250 for each rushing and passing touchdown Newton gets in 2014.
The money will go to programs that impact youth and education in Mecklenburg County. For more information, visit camnewtonfoundation.com.
Former player arrested: Former Panthers running back Armond Smith was arrested Friday after he allegedly stole a leaf blower out of a landscaping truck, according to the Rockdale (Ga.) Citizen. He was charged with theft by taking.
Smith played four games for the Panthers in 2012 and five games last season. He was released from the practice squad in December and was not on any team’s roster as of last week.
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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