Carolina Panthers

Panthers’ Bell frontrunner to replace Gross at left tackle

The starting left tackle position has been up for grabs since Jordan Gross’ retirement, and Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera will keep a keen eye on the spot during training camp.

Last year’s starting right tackle Byron Bell is the frontrunner to win the job. He will share reps with Nate Chandler, whom the team signed to a three-year contract extension last month.

Rivera said Garry Williams will also get an opportunity at tackle. Williams will also see time at guard.

“We think those three guys give us an opportunity to find a starter out of that group,” Rivera said Thursday after players reported to Bank of America Stadium. “But it most certainly is going to be a competitive position. It will be one we will watch for obvious reasons.”

Bell, at 6-foot-5 and 340 pounds, has been the starting right tackle for the past three seasons. Rivera has said the move to left tackle would be natural for the left-handed Bell.

The Panthers are also impressed with Chandler’s athleticism and versatility. Chandler played tight end in college and has since played defensive tackle, offensive guard and now offensive tackle.

Carolina signed Chandler to a three-year extension worth $7.95 million last month.

“It felt great just knowing that they have confidence in me and extending me to some more years here in Carolina. It’s just a great feeling coming where I came from,” Chandler said.

Harper’s new home: After playing his first eight seasons in New Orleans, first-year safety Roman Harper said it’s refreshing to join a new team.

“It’s a different camp, a different feel, being around (new) coaches. Different cooks, the whole nine,” Harper said. “I heard the cooks down there in Wofford are pretty straight.”

The Panthers plan to be cautious with Harper, who missed seven games last year with a knee injury. Harper, 31, said he agrees with having his practice reps closely monitored.

“These guys understand I had a pretty significant knee surgery last year. They’re going to work with me, and I appreciate that. I told them that when I first got in,” Harper said. “They understand I’ve had a lot of plays in my career. The fact that they trust me enough to be able to do that ...”

“It’s not about training camp. Nobody cares about how great you look on paper. It’s all about how you perform on Sundays. You get paid to win. It’s a winning sport, and that’s what we’re all here to do. That’s why I came here.”

Godfrey’s new position: Safety-turned-cornerback Charles Godfrey said his surgically repaired Achilles is completely healed and he’ll begin training camp with no restrictions.

Godfrey was injured in a Week 2 loss at Buffalo last year, and was limited during organized team activities (OTAs). Godfrey agreed to a significant pay cut as part of a contract restructuring, and also went along with the shift to corner.

“I feel great. In the training I’ve done, I made all the cuts, backpedaled, I opened up (his hips) and I broke, planting, coming back. The main thing now is just gaining the confidence,” Godfrey said. “I have a lot of confidence in it. Everything is healed up and everything is fine.”

Godfrey will compete with rookie Bene’ Benwikere, one of the pleasant surprises during OTAs, for the nickel corner spot. Rivera said Godfrey is in the mix for a full-time corner spot, as well.

“He’s played the position before, although it was in college (at Iowa),” Rivera said. “He played the nickel position for us here, so we see that skill set, we see that ability and we think this might be a good transition for him. We’re anxious to see how he looks.”

Linebacker signed: The Panthers signed linebacker Anthony Morales to take the roster spot of second-year guard Edmund Kugbila, who will undergo season-ending back surgery next month.

Morales, an undrafted rookie from Weber State, attended the Panthers’ rookie minicamp as a tryout player in May. He averaged 10 tackles a game during his final college season.

Tight end designation: Jimmy Graham’s designation as a tight end instead of a wide receiver helped other tight ends, Greg Olsen said.

Carolina’s tight end said Graham’s loss in a franchise tag appeal helped the market for those at his position.

The Saints used the $7.05 million franchise tag on Graham for 2014. But Graham, a 6-7, 255-pound pass-catcher, wanted the $12.3 million tag given to receivers.

An arbitrator ruled in favor of the Saints, but the two sides eventually agreed on a long-term deal of four years and $40 million that made Graham the highest-paid tight end in league history.

“His production speaks for itself, so he did demand top pass-catcher money. But the idea that he was termed ‘tight end’ on the roster ended up hurting him,” Olsen said. “But for the rest of the tight ends, I think it benefits us. I think it brings that tight end number up, because his contract counts as a tight end deal, and being the highest-paid guy benefits. The thing, finally now tight ends are starting to be recognized as a valuable piece and there are more and more young tight ends that are going to continue to jump that market.”

Olsen signed a five-year, $24.7 million contract with the Panthers in 2011. He will make $5.5 million this season.