Following a 2011 season during which the Carolina Panthers allowed three punt returns for touchdowns and averaged just 5.5 yards per punt return, resulting in a 32nd rating for the special teams unit according to Football Outsiders' metrics, improving that area was a point of emphasis in the team's offseason acquisitions, head coach Ron Rivera said according to Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer.
In free agent, safety Haruki Nakamura and linebacker Kenny Onatolu were signed to three-year deals totaling $6.5 million. Both players were core special teamers on their previous teams, with Nakamura posting 30 special teams tackles in 56 games with the Baltimore Ravens. Onatolu made 40 special teams tackles in 48 games with the Minnesota Vikings, including a team-high 19 tackles in 2009 when current Panthers special teams coordinator Brian Murphy was running the Vikings' special teams units.
Fullback Mike Tolbert, who signed a four-year, $10 million contract, has also been a key performer on special teams, leading the San Diego Chargers in special teams tackles in two of the last three seasons.
"What Marty (Hurney) did, going out and looking at certain free agents, one of the questions that he always wanted to ask was, 'What can he do for us on special teams?' " Rivera said. "You look at some of the moves we made, bringing Kenny in from Minnesota. Bringing in Haruki from Baltimore. These are guys that have a (special teams) background. Then bringing in Michael Tolbert.
"So you're talking about three guys that have all played special teams that also do some things for you on regular downs. That showed that was an emphasis."
Hurney's emphasis on improving the special teams continued in the 2012 NFL Draft, picking up Arkansas wide receiver/return specialist Joe Adams in the fourth round and Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman in the sixth. Adams averaged 15.8 yards per return and scored five touchdowns in his two seasons as the Razorbacks' punt returner, leading the nation in punt returns for touchdowns (4) and ranking second with a 16.9 yard average in 2011.
Adams will be given every opportunity to unseat Armanti Edwards as the Panthers' punt returner. Nortman averaged 42.1 yards per punt during his four-year career and will compete with free agent addition Nick Harris for the punting duties this summer.
"The one thing that we've done is we've created competition," Murphy said. "Clearly, it's important. You're in a competitive profession and this is part of it. ... But I think the 53 guys that will be on this roster in the end, regardless of special teams, will know that they've been in a fight and have earned the right to be Carolina Panthers."