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 OKd Jordan and yes sir to (offensive line) coach (John) Matsko. And I always walk slow. Thats 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 Newtons 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 Buffalos 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. Im naturally left-handed. I can kick left. I do everything left-handed, Bell said. If I play right tackle, thats fine. If I play left tackle, thats fine.
At the end of the day, tackle is tackle, and youve 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.
Its 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 thats to block guys. Ive done that my whole career, Bell said. If they didnt believe in me I wouldnt have been here for the three years Ive 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 Bells rookie season to talk about life. Hell 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 couldnt swim before. I can swim now because of Jordan Gross.
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9