SDBR Free Agent Profile: Tackle Byron Bell

The Chargers have addressed most of their needs so far in free agency, but one opening that must be filled is offensive tackle. While King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker are entrenched as the starters, swing tackle Willie Smith is a free agent who struggled last season. One possible solution? Former Panthers tackle Byron Bell.

Bell had a rough go of things in 2014. After serving as Carolina’s right tackle the previous three seasons, he was switched over to the left side following the sudden retirement of Jordan Gross. He started 15 games on the blindside and allowed 9.25 sacks, which prompted the Panthers to send him into free agency without a contract offer, opting instead to replace him with Michael Oher.

Bell posted on Instagram shortly after the season: “It’s been real, Carolina, now time to see where the Lord takes me next. I can’t be mad. Four years [in Carolina], I would love more, but it is what it is. I guess I got to just keep pushing the Lord’s work and growing as a Christ.”

While people will look at Bell’s numbers in pass protection (26 sacks allowed over the last three season) and dismiss him as a viable candidate, it is important to remember his situation. Bell was blocking for Cam Newton, a young, mobile quarterback who loves to hang onto the ball until the last possible moment.

It reminds me of Dunlap’s situation. During the 2010-2012 seasons in Philadelphia, he started 19 games and allowed a dozen sacks while blocking for Michael Vick, whose style is similar to Newton’s. Once Dunlap arrived in San Diego and became part of a fast-strike offense with a quick-trigger QB, his sack numbers were cut virtually in half.

What is most appealing about Bell is his ability to provide depth on both sides of the line. In addition to starting at left tackle last season, he started 24 games on the left side over his final two seasons at New Mexico. He is even more comfortable on the right side, where he started from 2011-2013. During his final season at right tackle, the Panthers ran for over 100 yards in 14 games while ranking in the top-five in time of possession, third-down efficiency and drives lasting five-plus minutes.

Bell also started one game at right guard for the Panthers. He could potentially provide depth/competition at that position, as well, since incumbent Johnnie Troutman is coming off an up-and-down season that ended with him on injured-reserve with a knee injury. Troutman underwent surgery earlier this offseason and is expected to be healthy in time for training camp.

Bell has outstanding size (6 foot 5, 340 lbs.) and power. Along with Orlando Franklin, he would greatly progress Tom Telesco’s offseason plan of adding beef and physicality to the offensive line.

He is also a terrific presence in the locker room.

Said Panthers head coach (and former Chargers defensive coordinator) Ron Rivera of Bell: “I don’t think people really quite know who the young man is, and how bright he is, how intelligent he is, how funny he is. Because he’s quiet. He’s easy-going and he stays to himself.”

Telesco is looking to add an offensive tackle now that he has crossed some more pressing items off his list. The team recently visited with former Bills tackle Chris Hairston, who spent last season as a backup right tackle after missing the 2013 season with an ankle injury. Hairston played under Chargers offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris during the 2011 and 2012 seasons in Buffalo, when he started 15 games as the Bills’ swing tackle.

Hairston left town without a deal, so for now, Telesco’s search continues. It says here the next candidate in should be Bell. He could be had with a deal similar to the one Dunlap signed two seasons ago (two years, $3.95 million). And while Bell might not enjoy a full-fledged career renaissance like Dunlap, he will certainly be a massive upgrade over Willie Smith.

Should the Chargers sign tackle Byron Bell? Discuss inside the message boards.

Michael Lombardo is a long-time contributor to the team. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 18 years and covered the team since '03. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.

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