Sharpen your pitchforks, light your torches, and grab a case of rotten tomatoes, because I’m about to defend Byron Bell.
My advocacy of the much maligned former Carolina Panthers tackle comes down to two words: opportunity cost.
For those unfamiliar with the term, opportunity cost is an economics principle illustrating that by investing resources in one area, you are giving up the opportunity to invest those same resources in other areas. For example, if a farmer decides to grow corn, the opportunity cost is losing the ability to grow tomatoes, lettuce, or other "medicinal" herbs if the farm is located in Washington or Colorado.
Defending Byron Bell comes down to opportunity cost.
While Bell’s play at tackle was frustratingly substandard during his four years with the Panthers, the fact that he filled that role as an undrafted free agent on a cheap contract gave Carolina the opportunity to invest the team’s salary cap and high draft picks in other areas.
Opportunity Cost #1: Salary Cap
Byron Bell started for four years as a tackle in Carolina. His first three seasons (2011-2013) were at right tackle where he earned an average of about $470,000 per year, an extremely low salary for a starting tackle. In 2014 Bell was moved to left tackle and earned about $2.2 million after signing his restricted free agent tender.
One way to look at opportunity cost is to analyze how much salary cap flexibility Byron Bell’s cheap contract gave Carolina.
In a league with 32 teams, using the 16th highest-paid right tackle and left tackle is a fair benchmark for salaries of "average" NFL starters.
Per OverTheCap.com, the 16th highest paid right tackle is Zach Strief of the New Orleans Saints at $4.0 million per year (five years, $20 million.) Bell’s average salary of $470,000 between 2011 and 2013 gave Carolina about $3.5 million in additional cap space each year when compared to the average starter’s contract.
Also per OverTheCap.com, the 16th highest-paid left tackle is Jared Velheeder of the Arizona Cardinals at $7.0 million per year (five years, $35 million.) With a 2014 salary of about $2.2 million, Bell’s contract gave the Panthers about $4.8 million in extra cap space when compared to Velheeder.
Yes, Byron Bell was clearly a below-average starter, but you get what you pay for. You can’t buy a used Toyota Corolla then complain when it doesn’t perform like a new BMW.
From an opportunity cost standpoint, was Carolina better off starting Byron Bell at tackle with roughly an additional $3.5 million in cap space from 2011-2013 and an additional $4.8 million in 2014? It’s impossible to know for sure, but at least Bell’s struggles came on a cheap contract.
There would have been a cost to replacing Byron Bell at tackle. Teams cannot simply replace such a key position in a vacuum.
Because Bell played – though poorly – on a cheap contract, his low salary gave the Panthers the opportunity to invest a meaningful amount of cap space in other areas.
Opportunity Cost #2: Draft Picks
Carolina could have also decided to replace Byron Bell via the draft.
If Carolina would have given up on Bell after his up-and-down 2011 rookie season, they would have had to replace him in the draft at some point between 2012 and 2014, most likely in the first or second round. It is rare for a "sure thing" tackle prospect to slip to the third round or later.
The opportunity cost of replacing Byron Bell with a quality starting tackle would have been giving up one of these six players drafted between 2012 and 2014:
2012: Luke Kuechly (1st) and Amini Silatolu (2nd)
2013: Star Lotulelei (1st) and Kawann Short (2nd)
2014: Kelvin Benjamin (1st) and Kony Ealy (2nd)
The opportunity cost of replacing Byron Bell in the draft would have meant giving up one of these players, most likely one of the first round picks – Luke, Star, or KB. Each of these players has been stellar and should be franchise cornerstones for years to come.
The second round picks consist of another potential franchise cornerstone in Kawann Short, a promising player in Kony Ealy, and a question mark in the oft-injured Amini Silatolu.
Would the Panthers have been better off keeping Byron Bell while drafting these additional players – especially the first rounders – or would they have been better off pulling the plug on Bell and replacing him via the draft?
Again, it is impossible to know for sure, but Carolina has largely nailed their 2012-2014 early round selections.
Keeping Byron Bell gave Carolina the opportunity to draft these players, the first rounders in particular, which has proven valuable to the Panthers.
The Final Defense
Yes, Byron Bell was a below-average tackle.
In 2013, Bell’s third year at right tackle, he was graded by Pro Football Focus as 52nd among 76 offensive tackles. Bell’s grading is not great in terms of production, but at least that production only cost $470,000 per year.
In 2014 Bell was moved to left tackle, and to no one’s surprised he flamed out with a grade from Pro Football Focus as the second-to-worst tackle in the NFL. The Panthers as an organization deserve as much criticism as Bell does for his 2014 struggles after the team moved him from the right side to the left and into a position where he was almost certainly going to fail.
In the end, Byron Bell should never have been a starter, especially on the left side. In a perfect world, Bell would have been a solid backup in Carolina, providing depth when needed. He could have been valuable in this type of limited role.
But Byron Bell was thrust into a starting role and though he did his best, he struggled for four years before leaving Carolina.
The silver lining to the failed Byron Bell experiment is opportunity cost.
Bell’s cheap contract gave the Panthers additional salary cap space to invest elsewhere, helping the team fill roster holes while posting a 19-12-1 record with two playoff berths in the last two years.
By riding Byron Bell between 2012 and 2014 instead of replacing him via a first round draft pick, Carolina now has Luke Kuechly, Star Lotulelei, and Kelvin Benjamin.
While Bell’s on-field performance largely hurt the team, the opportunity cost of keeping him may have been an overall positive for Carolina when considering the alternatives.
The Panthers have declined to give Byron Bell another opportunity in Carolina.
Now it’s time to see what the cost will be.