Can Panthers' Byron 'Eeyore' Bell replace Jordan Gross?

jjones@charlotteobserver.comFebruary 27, 2014 

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Byron Bell, nicknamed "Eeyore," by retiring Carolina Panthers tackle Jordan Gross, gives Gross a stuffed animal Eeyore to remember him by. Gross retired this week after 11 seasons with the team, and Bell is among the options to replace him.

JOHN D. SIMMONS — jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com Buy Photo

Carolina Panthers right tackle Byron Bell brought a stuffed animal to Jordan Gross’ retirement press conference on Wednesday.

Bell, standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 340 pounds, stood to the side with a stuffed Eeyore, an old, gloomy donkey from the Winnie-the-Pooh series. It was a reference to the nickname Gross had given Bell when Bell was a rookie on the 2011 team.

“When I first got here I was always to myself,” Bell, 25, said. “And Eeyore was always ‘OK…’ in a low voice. And I always OK’d Jordan and ‘yes sir’ to (offensive line) coach (John) Matsko. And I always walk slow. That’s why he gave me the nickname Eeyore.”

The slow-moving, slow-talking Bell may have to speed things up now. With Gross’ retirement, the Panthers are looking for the right fit to protect Cam Newton’s blind side, and coach Ron Rivera said the answer could be Bell.

But Bell, who went undrafted out of New Mexico, struggled at times at right tackle in 2013. His worst performance came in Week 2, when Buffalo’s Mario Williams abused Bell and the rest of the Panthers’ offensive line for seven pressures and 4.5 sacks.

Gross said Bell got too much heat last season, and he believes Bell could replace him at tackle. Bell played left tackle for two seasons at New Mexico, including his junior year, when he had 82 knockdown blocks.

“I played left tackle in college. I’m naturally left-handed. I can kick left. I do everything left-handed,” Bell said. “If I play right tackle, that’s fine. If I play left tackle, that’s fine.

“At the end of the day, tackle is tackle, and you’ve got to block the best athletes. So I feel like if I got to change my style to play left I will, if I got to keep it at right I will. I just want to help the team win.”

With Gross missing just nine games in his career and playing 93.4 percent of offensive snaps for the Panthers since 2003, there have been few opportunities outside of practice or the preseason for Bell to test himself against NFL-level talent.

Rivera said whether the next left tackle is Bell, another lineman on the roster, a draft pick or a free agent, everyone will have to play better.

“It’s not just about that one person,” Rivera said. “The other 10 guys are going to have to pick up the way they play until we find a comfortable fit.”

The cap-challenged Panthers may not have the money for a top-tier tackle in free agency, and at No. 28 in the draft, the top three tackles likely will already be off the board by the time the Panthers select.

No matter what Carolina does, Bell welcomes the competition.

“Whether they draft two tackles, one tackle, I still got to come in and do my job, and that’s to block guys. I’ve done that my whole career,” Bell said. “If they didn’t believe in me I wouldn’t have been here for the three years I’ve been. They believe in me and they got faith in me and I believe I can help this team win.”

Bell will have to help the team win without Gross, who invited Bell to his Idaho hometown after Bell’s rookie season to talk about life. He’ll miss Gross’ presence in the meeting rooms and on the sideline, where the two would exchange information about the tendencies of the opposing defensive ends.

“He helped me become a better brother, one day a better father, one day a better husband,” Bell said. “The dude helped me sign up for swim lessons.

“I couldn’t swim before. I can swim now because of Jordan Gross.”

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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