With the off-season passed, the departure of a longtime Panthers veteran surely brings uncertainty to Cam Newton and the young offense. He was a member of the franchise in its highest moment when in 2003 he started on a Carolina team which saw the Panthers lose in heartbreaking fashion to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. He was also there in the forgettable, 2010 campaign which saw Jimmy Clausen lead a team that resembled the London Silly Nannies rather than the team that won the competitive NFC South two years prior. A veteran member who led a key facet of the Panthers offense, former left tackle Jordan Gross will most certainly be missed in Carolina.
While the release of veteran receiver Steve Smith was the most notable highlight for Carolina in the off-season, the retirement of Jordan Gross who anchored an offensive line which saw running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart both rush for more than 1,000 yards in the 2008 season, may be more of a lost than the departure of Smith. Creating holes for Panthers’ backs for eleven seasons, Gross was also a steady lineman in Carolina’s passing attack for a decade as he started 167 games out of 176 total games for Carolina.
Blocking for longtime quarterback Jake Delhomme, Gross was able to protect his quarterback who hit Smith and Muhsin Muhammad for multiple 1,000 yard seasons, becoming one of the most deadly passing combinations in the early half of the millennium. A fixture on division winning and last place teams, Gross’s left tackle position will be up for grabs for Bryon Bell and Nate Chandler. The most important position on the offensive line, Bell and Chandler must protect the blindside of the most important player of the franchise Cam Newton, as well as maintaining a strong Panthers rushing attack which finished 11th in the NFL a year ago.
Predicated the front runner for the left tackle position, Bryon Bell, an undrafted pickup from New Mexico in 2011 has had trouble when given the opportunity to play since joining Carolina. The numbers are hardly impressive as Bell has given up 22 sacks in 47 games in his Panther career. At right tackle last season, Bell gave up a total of 9 sacks, ninth worst among qualified tackles. The most alarming statistics comes from ProFootballFocus.com who in their measurement of pass block efficiency, had Bell tied for 43 out of 58 tackles who were considered eligible for the statistics. By comparisons, the tackle he is replacing, Jordan Gross, finished 10th in the ProFootballFocus’s stats.
Yet, with the panic many fans have towards the blindside of Cam, tackle Bell is confident in his ability to be successful in anchoring the offensive line. Asked about the lingering questions how he could be the potential weak spots of a Carolina offense, Bell replied confidently, stating, “”The only thing I’m focusing on is doing what I’m capable of. I know what I’m capable of…the Good Lord blessed me with talents to play the game of football, so I’m going to go out and try my best and do what I can do. Right tackle or left tackle, it doesn’t matter – I just want to go out and win football games. Wherever the coaches put me, that’s what is best for the team.”
While Bell has faced more of the questions than Chandler, the undrafted free agent from UCLA who started at right guard late in the Panthers win streak last season, Chandler still concerns many in the Panthers fan-base. A tight end in college and a former defensive lineman, Chandler is certainly more athletic than Bell, but lacks the game experience of Bell. Chandler has only started eight games as an offensive lineman for Carolina.
Seeking to drown out the criticism, Chandler stands firm along with Bell that though the two undrafted linemen have heard the criticisms from fans and analysis, the two are ready to prove their detractors wrong. Bell, defending his teammate as well as himself later added,
“People are going to underestimate us, with Pro Football Focus and everybody wants to write all these things about us. To be honest with you, I don’t care. As long as my mother loves me and God loves me, I’m good…I told [Chandler] don’t read into all the negativity and do your thing, play your game, I’m going to play mine and let the results show on the scoreboard on Sunday.”