CHARLOTTE – Not that long ago, Byron Bell was an undrafted rookie trying to earn a spot on the Panthers roster without the benefit of an offseason.
Now Bell, entering his third season as the Panthers' right tackle, recognizes the benefit of the NFL's offseason program, which will conclude this week with a mandatory veteran minicamp that kicks off Tuesday and wraps up Thursday.
"The rookies have really picked up on things, and I like what we're doing on offense and defense," Bell said. "And then after we break camp, everybody will need to stay in shape to get ready to go to Spartanburg."
When Bell was a rookie, training camp in Spartanburg was the starting point for offseason training because of the NFL's protracted work stoppage. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) reduced the offseason program from what it previously was, putting a premium on getting the maximum out of it.
That's exactly what head coach Ron Rivera believes the Panthers have done to this point.
"We're ahead of schedule," Rivera said last week at the conclusion of three weeks of organized team activities (OTAs). "We have for the most part installed everything we wanted to install, and we've gone through the situations we wanted to. Now it's about the players going out and executing."
Rivera joked that the only difference between OTAs and this week's practices is that the minicamp "will be later in the afternoon."
It will be similar in a lot of ways. The Phase Three rules set forth in the CBA will govern the minicamp just like they did OTAs, with helmets and team offense-versus-defense plays permitted but no live contact allowed. The minicamp technically will be different because it's mandatory whereas OTAs were voluntary, but every Panthers player took part in the voluntary workout program anyway.
There will, however, be some decided differences. Perhaps as important as anything, the Panthers will be allowed time on the field twice on both Tuesday and Wednesday before finishing up with one practice Thursday.
"The big thing is that we'll have walkthroughs in the morning and meetings after, then we'll practice later in the afternoon," Rivera said. "But for the most part, it's still about learning and going through the technique work."
The learning curve, however, is speeding up – not at the breakneck speed that training camp will feature beginning in late July, but at a greater pace because of all the work the Panthers have put in to this point.
It's a step in the process that Bell, under the direction of first-year offensive coordinator Mike Shula, is embracing.
"We've gotten all the plays in now, so we should be able to fly around," Bell said. "Whatever Coach Shula dials up, we're going to run it."