Free agency for the Carolina Panthers this year didn't mean making a splash, or getting a big-name free agent, but rather they waited by the sidelines and picked up a cadre of hungry players looking for a bigger role. On the defensive side of the ball no player typified this notion more than FS Haruki Nakamura of the Baltimore Ravens. A 6th round pick in 2008, Nakamura became one of the Ravens most vital special teams players. As time went on and Ed Reed got longer in the tooth it would be Nakamura who took snaps as needed, and replaced Reed on occasions where he was injured.
If this narrative sounds familiar, it should. In many ways Nakamura's situation mirrors our own Dan Connor's -- a player who is a legitimate starter on most NFL teams, but when stuck behind Jon Beason he didn't stand a chance. Nakamura drew significant interest from several teams willing to offer a chance to compete for a starting position after being stuck behind Reed, but ultimately chose to become a member of the Carolina Panthers.
Haruki's signing happened so close to the draft, and in the middle of a smattering of other news that we didn't really get a chance to look into his ability as we wanted to. After the jump we'll look a little deeper at Nakamura's ability, and how he might fit into the Panthers' conundrum at safety this year.
A small sample size is a dangerous thing to extrapolate from, but it's all we really have to go on. Last season Nakamura was mostly relegated to special teams, so for the purpose of comparison we'll go back to 2010 when he had a bigger impact on the game. From here we'll compare to Sherrod Martin's 2010 season, a year that by most accounts was a successful 1st season as a starter.
It's more appropriate to compare 2010 season's rather than Nakamura's 2010 v. Martin's 2011 as Sherrod contended with a new defensive system, and defenses were stuck in a lurch following the lockout. A 2010 comparison is by no means perfect, but it's the best we really have.
Against the pass
Nakamura: 33% stop rate, 11.7 yards allowed per play, 2.6 YAC allowed average-- Targeted 2.2% of plays
Martin: 34% stop rate, 12.0 yards allowed per play, 1.8 YAC allowed average-- Targeted 4.7% of plays
Across the board Nakamura and Martin were fairly similar against the pass, but it's that target rate that tells a lot of the story. As we know from Chris Gamble the ability of a DB to be in good position is oftentimes the difference between a good pass play, and a bad one. Gamble consistently has a low target rate because of his positioning, and we see the same from Nakamura. One would think that a backup FS entering the game for a future hall of famer would be the perfect recipe to test the backup, but in a small sample teams weren't willing to do it.
Against the run
Nakamura: 4 plays, 2 stops, 7.8 yards allowed per play-- 50% stop rate
Martin: 41 plays, 22 stops, 5.9 yards allowed per play-- 54% stop rate
This is a case where Haruki's sample size is way too small to draw any conclusions. Without looking at those four running plays in depth we don't really have a way of deriving any information. Martin on the other hand was quite good against the run in 2010. He wasn't arm tackling, found himself in good position, and closed on ball carriers quickly. We can only hope he returns to form.
Both Nakamura and Martin have individual skills unique to their role in their corresponding defenses. Haruki Nakamura is an extremely good solo tackler, and experienced at pressuring the QB. In his limited time he registered five QB pressures, to just two by Martin on a full season. As a solo tackler Nakamura registered 92% of his tackle total solo, compared to 69% by Sherrod Martin.
The flipside is playing the ball in the air, where Sherrod Martin is more gifted. He had a very good 2010 season in which he totaled 5 passes defended and 3 interceptions compared to Nakamura's one pass defended in limited time.
It remains to be seen how the starting safety job will pan out, but Sherrod Martin's feet will be held to the fire. Judging from his 2010 season he has the ability to play in the league, no doubt about it. However, his propensity for arm tackling, coupled with his bad positioning in 2011 was a serious liability for the defense. Concurrently, Nakamura's ability to pressure the QB, and be a reliable tackler could pair very nicely with Charles Godfrey who has always had a high-risk, high-reward play style.
Just over a week until Spartanburg and we'll get this all sorted out!