SPARTANBURG, S.C. - It's hard to imagine a 6-5, 340-pound man ever being invisible, but this time last year, Byron Bell was just that.
When the Panthers opened training camp in 2011, Bell was one of 10 undrafted college free agents on the roster, a group mostly ignored by casual observers as the team debuted its drafted players and veteran free agents.
One year later, however, Bell is far from invisible; he's out of sight.
"A year ago, I definitely wouldn't have thought I'd be having a press conference like this," Bell said Saturday, surrounded by media members. "I just thank God."
Bell has a lot of people to thank for his rapid ascension from undrafted rookie to starting right tackle, starting with himself.
Panthers assistant offensive line coach Ray Brown put Bell through his only workout with an NFL team leading up to the draft, and Brown later helped convince Bell that Carolina would provide him a good opportunity to thrive.
Once on the team, Bell gobbled up invaluable insight from the Panthers' veteran linemen, especially right guard Geoff Hangartner, and Bell helped himself with his tireless work ethic.
Now, Bell can again thank the front office that offered him a chance in the first place. Earlier in the week, the Panthers gave Bell a major vote of confidence by trading right tackle Jeff Otah, a first-round pick in 2008, to the New York Jets.
"That says a lot about Byron, a lot about the confidence they have and we all have in him," Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said. "He's taken tremendous strides in a short amount of time. We threw him in there, and he wasn't a highly touted draft pick coming out.
"He's a physical football player. He's a big man, and he has the smarts and drive to make it happen. There's full support behind him, and he's done a tremendous job for us."
Bell started 12 games at right tackle last season in place of Otah, who eventually landed on injured reserve to recover from a left knee injury that sidelined him the entire 2010 season.
For the longest time, Otah appeared to be in position to reclaim the starting role once healthy, but the Panthers decided that they were happy with Bell and their other options at right tackle.
"We've got three good, young offensive tackles that can contribute, and we've got the veteran on the other side in Jordan (Gross). That helped us make the decision to make the move," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "Byron played pretty darn well for us last year – we had one of the top scoring teams in the league last year with him as our right tackle. We think a year of experience bodes well for him; he continues to grow.
"We also like Garry Williams. We think he can come in and compete. Also, Bruce (Campbell) is a good addition for us."
Bell said he spoke briefly to Otah in the Panthers' locker room right after the trade, and they wished each other the best of luck.
While Bell appreciates the confidence shown by his team, he's not beginning training camp in a celebratory mood.
"I'm ready to go back to work," Bell said. "One thing I need to do is cut down on penalties that hurt the team. I think I had 14 last year; I need to cut those out.
"This offseason, I hit the gym hard and worked a lot on technique. I looked at tape from last year and found some things I can improve. I'm just counting my blessings and working toward becoming one of the top guys in this league."