CHARLOTTE - As the NFL neared the end of its work stoppage last July, undrafted rookies Byron Bell and Thomas Keiser didn't know if they'd find work.
The Panthers, however, gave them an opportunity, and they quickly went from the verge of the unemployment line to contributing factors along the line of scrimmage – both with bright futures.
"I started out by coming out of New Mexico undrafted, and I finished it by starting 12 games," said Bell, the Panthers' starting right tackle most of last season. "That ain't too bad."
While Bell had exhausted his college eligibility and had gotten a job laying carpet as he waited to see what the end of the work stoppage would bring, Keiser passed on his final season of eligibility at Stanford to pursue his NFL dreams, only to go undrafted.
"I can remember driving back from Stanford (to his native Pennsylvania) probably five days before the lockout ended, not knowing where I was going to sign or anything like that," said Keiser, a defensive end who tied for second on the team with four sacks despite playing just half the season. "I just wanted a chance."
Keiser's long, lonely drive across the country last July took 36 hours, completed without stopping for so much as a nap.
Soon, both he and Bell would show the Panthers that they had motors that wouldn't stop on the football field as well.
BELL'S LEARNING CURVE STRAIGHTENS
Given that the Panthers were the only team to hold an individual workout with Bell leading up to the NFL Draft, he knew they'd dial his number once teams could begin signing undrafted players.
Bell certainly answered the call.
He was one of three undrafted rookies – along with Keiser and fellow offensive lineman Bryant Browning – to initially make the 53-man roster.
Bell didn't stop there. He played as a reserve lineman and on special teams in Week 1 at the Arizona Cardinals, and when right tackle Jeff Otah couldn't play because of a concussion in Week 2 against the reigning Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, Bell was thrust into the starting lineup.
"I did believe that my hard work would eventually pay off. It turns out that it paid off in Week 2 against Clay Matthews and the Green Bay Packers," Bell said. "I won't ever forget my rookie season – from undrafted to my first start in Week 2."
Bell held his own in his first start, and he started again in Week 6 when Otah couldn't go with a back injury. Before the Week 7 game against the Washington Redskins, the Panthers placed Otah on injured reserve.
Bell started the remainder of the season. He endured growing pains along the way, but he proved a key cog in a line that helped the Panthers finish third in the NFL in rushing offense, fifth in scoring and seventh in total offense.
"I just continued working, and my coaches and teammates had faith in me," Bell said. "Everybody trusted me to go out and play right tackle, and I feel like I did the job.
"It was a good learning experience. All the guys in the room kept me going, and I feel like I can build off of it and become a consistent offensive tackle in this league."
KEISER ON A ROLL
Thanks to a strong showing in the preseason, Keiser made the roster along with Bell, but his initial stay didn't last long.
He was waived the next day when the Panthers added several players let go by other teams, but he joined the Panthers' practice squad a day later.
Keiser labored on the practice squad for the first half of the season but continued to catch the eye of the coaching staff with the extra running he put in daily after practice.
Eight games into the season, the Panthers signed Keiser to the active roster. He made an immediate impact in a reserve role.
"I couldn't have been any happier when that shot came," said Keiser, who made his debut Nov. 13 against the Tennessee Titans. "I remember waking up that morning. I felt like it was finally my time. I didn't feel any nervousness or pressure or doubt because I just said to myself, 'I came from nowhere. Nobody expected anything from me. I've just got to go out and do what I know how to do.'
"Being able to come in for my first play, drop back into coverage and tackle Chris Johnson in the open field was a great way to start the career – proving my ability on the first play."
The next week at Detroit, Keiser produced two sacks. Two weeks later at Tampa Bay, he came up with an interception.
Now Keiser - like Bell and the rest of the Panthers - is focused on picking up where he left off in 2012.
"I feel like our team has that hungry mentality," Keiser said. "When you're that close to being successful, it hurts, but that drive will sustain us throughout the offseason. We know where we want to go."