When he spotted Byron Bell walking up the hill toward the locker room after the Carolina Panthers’ practice Monday morning, Jordan Gross had a fashion tip for his former teammate about the slimming effect of black clothes.
“You’ve got to wear some black,” Gross said to Bell, whose Nike Dri-FIT shirt was soaked through with sweat. “The white’s rough on you.”
Gross had less to offer his possible successor at left tackle in the way of football advice. There might be a sizable chunk of the fan base that questions Bell’s ability to protect Cam Newton’s blind side, but Gross is not among them.
“I don’t think people understand the diamond in the rough that he has been for us,” Gross said of Bell. “He was undrafted out of New Mexico (in 2011). That’s not like a pipeline to the pros. And he’s started since his rookie year. If it wasn’t for him, when we lost (Jeff) Otah we would have been up a creek without a paddle.”
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Despite starting three seasons at right tackle, Bell has served as a “punching bag at times,” said Gross.
It’s an apt comparison.
Bell was a Golden Gloves boxer when he was in high school in Texas. He said he initially boxed to protect himself against his brothers. He gave up the sport as a high school senior when the football recruiting letters started to come in, fearful he might sustain a significant head injury. But Bell traveled to Ohio this summer to work out with his old boxing coach, and he lost 13 pounds in the process.
“I got back to the basic fundamentals of footwork and hand placement and things like that to help me out on the field,” said Bell, who is 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds.
Gross has said Bell’s boxing background has helped him develop a strong, initial punch when engaging and attempting to lock out his arms on defensive linemen. Bell said hitting objects – big and small – at the boxing gym translates to the field.
“Hitting the body bag, the speed bag, hitting the tennis ball, I think that will help me with defenders. Whatever surface they give me, I’ve just got to punch it,” Bell said. “So when guys get up in me, I’ve got to get them off of me quick.”
Bell’s boxing skills came in handy last summer when he got into a couple of training camp fights with his defensive counterparts. And although he is involved in one of the most important position battles at this year’s camp, he’s hoping to avoid any fisticuffs.
“I’m not coming out here and trying to fight my teammates,” Bell said, “but I’ve got to come out here and be physical so I can transfer it over to Sunday.”
Sundays were not always kind to Bell last season, particularly during a Week 2 loss at Buffalo when defensive end Mario Williams beat Bell on his way to 4.5 sacks.
Williams is one of the game’s elite pass-rushers, the type Bell will see more of if he beats out Nate Chandler for the left tackle position. But Bell said he has faced his share of premiere pass-rushers, mentioning a matchup with Minnesota’s Jared Allen during his rookie season and several snaps against Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs during an exhibition last season.
Coach Ron Rivera won’t name a starter until after the second exhibition, saying he wants to see how Bell and Chandler fare against Buffalo and Kansas City, both of which feature a strong pass rush.
In the meantime, Bell and Chandler will continue to flip-flop sides during camp. Rivera said Bell’s natural left-handedness is beneficial. But Rivera also said there’s no frontrunner at this point.
“My preference is for the best player to win it. And I’m giving you a politically correct answer because that’s what we need,” he said. “We need the best guy at left tackle, the best guy at right tackle more than anything else. I’m coming into this very open-minded.”
So is Bell.
While he hopes some day the front office views him as “a franchise left tackle,” Bell said his first priority is helping the Panthers make the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time.
“If it’s right tackle and it helps the team win, so be it. If it’s left tackle and it helps the team win, so be it,” Bell said. “I just want to win and get back in the postseason. Last year that was a great feeling. The city was buzzed up about it. So we’re trying to get back to that again. They say we can’t do it back-to-back. In my opinion, we can and we will.”