Free agent safety Haruki Nakamura returned home to Baltimore on Friday to find his 2-year-old daughter holding balloons and a sign that read: “Go Daddy! Good luck with the Panthers!”
It was a day for celebrating for Nakamura, whose 3-year deal with the Panthers gives him a chance to compete for a starting position after playing behind perennial Pro Bowler Ed Reed for four seasons in Baltimore.
“I was bombarded by blue and black balloons,” Nakamura said.
He wasn’t complaining.
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Neither were the Panthers. Although they are not expected to sign any big-name free agents, the Panthers made two moves Friday to improve a special-teams unit that was among the worst in the NFL in 2011.
The Panthers also gave a 3-year deal to ex-Minnesota linebacker Kenny Onatolu, a former Canadian League Football player who has extensive special-teams experience.
The Panthers did not announce the Onatolu deal because the contract has not yet been signed. But Onatolu said on Twitter he’s a Panther.
Nakamura’s deal is worth $4.8 million, with $1.3 million guaranteed, according to a league source. An escalator could take the total value to $5.5 million.
Also Friday, the Panthers released defensive tackle DeMario Pressley, who played in one game last season – Week 17 at New Orleans – after being signed off the practice squad.
Besides playing on special teams, Nakamura gives the Panthers someone to compete against Sherrod Martin, who regressed last season in his second year as a starter.
After backing up Reed, whom he called “one of the best who ever played the game,” Nakamura said he is excited for the opportunity Ron Rivera and his staff are giving him.
“Out front, they said nothing’s guaranteed. You have to earn your spot,” Nakamura said. “And that’s all I ever asked for. It’s the opportunity I’ve looked for my whole career.”
Nakamura, 25, a sixth-round pick in 2008 out of Cincinnati, has 23 tackles on defense and four pass breakups in 56 games. He tied for second on the Ravens last season with nine special-teams tackles, and was their postseason leader with four special-teams stops.
“I take a lot of pride in special teams, and you can just see by the way I play,” Nakamura said. “Whenever I step on that football field I play as hard as I can. I don’t settle to be average. I don’t put special teams in the backseat.”
Although not particularly big at 5-10 and 190 pounds, Nakamura has good speed and is known as a sure tackler. Martin, a former second-round pick entering his fourth season, had a number of missed tackles last season that led to big plays.
Nakamura’s father, who died when Nakamura was 5, moved from Japan in the 1960s to work with the U.S. national judo team. Nakamura and his two older brothers were national judo champions, and their mother is a fourth-degree black belt.
Onatolu, 29, played mostly special teams in three seasons with the Vikings after a two-year stint with Edmonton in the CFL. Onatolu, who was born in Chicago to Nigerian-raised parents, had 44 tackles in 48 games with Minnesota, with one career start.
Onatolu brings much-needed depth to the Panthers’ linebacker corps. Free agent Dan Connor signed with Dallas this week, and Jordan Senn also is a free agent.
Two of the Panthers’ starting linebackers – Pro Bowler Jon Beason and Thomas Davis – are coming off major surgeries.