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Newcomers Haruki Nakamura, Mike Tolbert should help Carolina Panthers’ special teams | CharlotteObserver.com

Newcomers Haruki Nakamura, Mike Tolbert should help Carolina Panthers’ special teams | CharlotteObserver.com & The Charlotte Observer Newspaper.

The former coaches of Haruki Nakamura and Mike Tolbert – two of the Panthers’ free agent acquisitions – say each player will help Carolina’s special teams.

A big part of the Panthers’ offseason focus has been improving a special teams unit that was among the worst in the league last season in many statistical categories. The Panthers hired Richard Rodgers, Ron Rivera’s teammate at Cal, as the assistant special teams coach, and brought in several players with a proven track record on special teams.

San Diego coach Norv Turner said Tolbert is a versatile running back who blocks well and can catch passes out of the backfield. But Turner said Tolbert’s special teams contributions “will be the biggest thing we have to do in terms of replacing him.”

“He brought great energy and he’s a very good coverage player in the kicking game,” Turner added at a media breakfast Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings at the Breakers Resort.

Baltimore coach John Harbaugh had similar praise for Nakamura, the free safety who spent four years backing up Pro Bowler Ed Reed with the Ravens. The Panthers expect Nakamura to compete with Sherrod Martin at the safety spot while giving the special teams a boost.

“I thought it was really smart for Carolina to bring him in and sign him because, at worst, you’ve got yourself a really good backup and a really good special teams player. And at best you might have yourself a legitimate starter,” Harbaugh said.

“Haruki’s a great guy, a hard worker, tremendous leader. I think the fans will love him.”

The Panthers also signed former Minnesota linebacker Kenny Onatolu, who made 49 special teams tackles over the past three seasons with the Vikings.

“I think we improved special teams, but the depth, as well,” Rivera said. “You look at what we did at safety, what we did at linebacker, a couple young guys that have had some success in the league on special teams and in backup roles. I feel pretty good about that.”

WEDNESDAY NIGHT LIGHTS: The Super Bowl-champion New York Giants will host NFC East rival Dallas on Sept. 5 in the NFL’s Kickoff game, the league announced Tuesday. The game is being played on a Wednesday so it doesn’t conflict with Barack Obama’s acceptance speech the following night at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.

Since 2004, when the NFL began the tradition of having the Super Bowl winner host the opening game, the reigning champion is 8-0.

VISITORS LOG: The Panthers have had a number of draft prospects come through Bank of America Stadium in recent weeks, including North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples and LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers.

Memphis defensive tackle Dontari Poe also is expected to meet with the Panthers. Coples, Brockers and Poe are projected first-round picks, although Rivera said the team is casting a wide net.

“We’ve used our full 30 complement of (visits), or we’re going to,” Rivera said. “We want to make sure we get a real good look at guys. Not just potential first- and second-rounders, but guys that will be later on in the draft.

“Being in the ninth position, we’ve got to react to what happens in front of us. We’ve got to make sure we have a good feel for a lot of guys who can potentially be there at nine or later on.”

The Panthers’ biggest needs are on defense after finishing 28th in yards allowed (377.6 per game) last season.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: New York Jets coach Rex Ryan expressed remorse at the combine about guaranteeing a Super Bowl victory last season, and said he was getting out of the prediction business. But Ryan hasn’t lost all his bluster.

Ryan was asked Tuesday about the Dallas Cowboys, who improved from 23rd in 2010 to 14th in total defense last season under Rob Ryan, his twin brother and the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator.

“They’ve got a chance to be the No. 2 defense in the league this year,” Rex said.

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