Bell expected to start at right tackle
By Steve Reed
CHARLOTTE— The Carolina Panthers are hoping Byron Bell gives them the stability and dependability at right tackle that Jeff Otah never could.
Coach Ron Rivera said Tuesday that he views Bell, a second-year player out of New Mexico, as the team’s starting right tackle this season. Bell earned a roster spot last year as an undrafted rookie and started 12 games after Otah landed on injured reserve for the third straight season.
That news comes one day after the Panthers traded the talented, but often-injured, Otah to the New York Jets for a conditional late-round 2013 draft pick.
Bell will be counted on to help protect quarterback Cam Newton, the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011.
“He played pretty doggone well last year,” Rivera said of Bell. “We were one of the top scoring teams in the league last year with him in there at right tackle. We think a year of experience bodes well for him and he’ll continue to grow.”
The Panthers were fifth in the league in scoring and seventh in total offense.
However, Bell can still stand to improve.
He was flagged for 14 penalties last season, fourth-most in the league, and allowed five sacks as a rookie, according to STATS Inc.
Rivera said Bruce Campbell, acquired in a trade earlier this offseason with the Oakland Raiders, and Garry Williams, who is coming off a season-ending knee injury, will also compete behind Bell at right tackle. Rivera said the depth at that position made it easier to pull the trigger on the Otah trade.
“We have three good young offensive tackles that can help contribute and be a part of what we want to do and a veteran on the other side (at left tackle) with Jordan Gross,” Rivera said.
Still, Otah has to be viewed as a bust.
The Panthers drafted him in the first round in 2008 and he showed a lot of promise his first two seasons, starting 25 of his first 29 games at right tackle.
But knee problems intervened and he wound up missing more games (35) than he played (29) during his four-year tenure with the Panthers. Otah has started only four of the last 35 games because of injury, and the former Pitt star has struggled to keep his weight under control.
Rivera said it was a tough decision to trade Otah because he’s so talented when healthy.
“I think it gives Jeff a chance to start all over again,” Rivera said. “It’s tough. You get injured and then you get injured again and sometimes you get a little stale. And I think sometimes a change of venue can help a good football player.”
Rivera said Otah worked hard last year to get healthy after he was placed on injured reserve.
“People have to understand that sometimes nagging injuries are just that — they nag and they bother,” Rivera said.
The decision to trade Otah on Monday came at almost exactly the same time the Panthers acquired wide receiver Louis Murphy from the Oakland Raiders in exchange for a late-round pick in 2013. Essentially, the draft picks involved in both trades cancel themselves out, meaning the Panthers got Murphy in exchange for Otah.
Like Otah, Murphy has battled injury problems.
He missed five games last season with a groin injury. Rivera said Murphy tweaked his hamstring last week and may be limited at the start of training camp.
Murphy is expected to compete for the No. 3 receiver spot along with David Gettis, who is coming off a torn ACL last summer, and Kealoha Pilares.
Although Gettis has been placed on the physically unable to perform list, the move was mostly procedural. The Panthers can remove Gettis from that list as soon as he’s deemed ready to practice.
Rivera has previously said Carolina’s starting receivers will be Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell.
The Panthers also got good news at Tuesday’s minicamp session for selected veterans and rookies when three of their defensive stalwarts — linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis and defensive end Charles Johnson — were back on the field together for the first time together since last year’s season opener.
Beason is coming off a torn Achilles tendon, while Davis is recovering from his third torn ACL in three years.
Johnson had arthroscopic surgery on the meniscus in his right knee but said he’ll be ready to go for training camp.
“I’m not 100 percent yet, but I’m back out there and trying to participate as much as I can and get my knee right,” Johnson said.