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Carolina Panthers

Rookie ready to answer Bell


CHARLOTTE - A few months ago, Byron Bell was laying carpet in exchange for free rent at his apartment complex in New Mexico.

Sunday, Bell will try to roll out the red carpet for the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.

Bell, an undrafted rookie, is the Panthers' new starting right tackle after the team placed Jeff Otah on injured reserve with a knee injury.

"The last few months, I can't even describe them," Bell said. "It went from me working at an apartment complex laying carpet to getting a call to come to Carolina to making the team to starting Week 2 against the Packers and now this.

"It's unbelievable, but I'm not going to let off the gas. I'm going to continue working for my unit and for my team."

Sunday's game at Bank of America Stadium against the Washington Redskins will actually be Bell's third start. He started in place of Otah in two of the Panthers' first six games, but now the job is his until further notice.

"I'm on his bandwagon," said Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who will depend on Bell to create paths and protect. "Everybody knows how talented Jeff is, and that injury is going to affect the team. At the same time, we can't mourn that.

"Byron knows that, and he has a lot of confidence in himself and what he can do. He's got games under his belt, and everybody expects that there won't be any hiccups. We've just got to keep going."

Jordan Gross, the Panthers' longtime tackle on the other end of the line, was among those giving Bell a ringing endorsement Wednesday.

"He's a Godsend," Gross said. "To get an undrafted rookie who is able to come in and start at tackle, that's incredible. A lot of high draft picks don't start their rookie year at tackle.

"He works hard, studies and pays attention and takes advice and coaching. He's really creating a nice future for himself with the way he's playing right now."

Bell's future didn't look nearly this bright six months ago, when no one drafted the University of New Mexico product. The Panthers, however, had taken note of Bell well before the draft and gave him a chance – all head coach Ron Rivera said he needed.

"A lot of guys, all they need is an opportunity," Rivera said. "He's a smart young man who understands football, and he's very athletic. We did a couple of things a couple of weeks ago when we had him line up in a defensive stance, and the kid could probably play three-technique in a 4-3 defense. He's an athlete.

"We've got all the confidence in the world in him. We think he'll do a heck of a job for us."


After Bell made the 53-man roster, he didn't have to wait long for his first action. Otah started the season opener at Arizona, but Bell played a couple of series. Otah then missed Week 2 because of the knee, setting the stage for Bell to start against the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.

Otah returned to play in the next three games but missed last Sunday'sg game at Atlanta before being shut down for the remainder of the year.

"I know he wanted to get back, and I know he's going to keep working hard to get to where he was before," left guard Travelle Wharton said. "It's been tough. I've been on IR, and it wears on you, trying to get back into the rhythm of playing mentally and physically. I know he'll work his tail off to get back.

"He's a talented guy, a first-rounder who can play football. Losing a guy of that caliber, it's going to hurt, but we have confidence in Byron."

Wharton praised Bell for doing the extra things. He presumably wasn't talking about the extra duties assigned to him by the veterans, like putting out towels for his fellow offensive linemen after every practice and game or getting food for them after every Thursday practice.

Bell, however, has taken his rookie responsbilities in stride, just like he has just about everything else.

"I've played solid, but it could be better," Bell said. "I've got to cut out all my penalties, and I've given up two sacks in my first two starts as well, so I need to cut down on that.

"I'm learning, and I'm going to continue to work hard and continue to be in my playbook studying my opponents. I'm going to make the most of it."

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