As Ravens Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed considers a decision to retire, his possible replacement is healing quickly.
While the Ravens are looking at training camp for the return of Haruki Nakamura, the second-year backup safety has targeted several offseason minicamps as possible dates when he will begin playing again.
Nakamura, a 2008 sixth-round draft pick out of Cincinnati, suffered a severe fracture of his right fibula on the opening kickoff of the ninth game, against the Cleveland Browns, last season.
A healthy Nakamura gives the Ravens some sense of relief while awaiting word from Reed.
"I will be definitely ready by training camp," Nakamura said. "Privately, I was always targeting a minicamp. I'm walking at a fast pace now and can actually go into a slow jog. Everything has gone well. I'm healing a lot faster than expected."
There are few players who can replace Reed, but Nakamura or second-year player Tom Zbikowski are options. Zbikowski, though, is more of a strong safety.
Early last season when both were healthy, it was Nakamura who played before Zbikowski in passing situations in nickel or dime coverage. Like Reed, Nakamura is an athlete with an easy stride who covers a lot of ground.
Nakamura, 23, had settled into his role as a special teams performer and extra defensive back in pass coverage until he got hurt.
The memory can't be erased. Nakamura had invited friends and family from his hometown of Cleveland to attend the game.
"I was blocking my guy and then he started to slough off me as Webby [kick returner Lardarius Webb] went by," Nakamura said. "Just as that happened, someone blocked Joshua Cribbs, who missed the tackle on Webb, and he crashed into my ankle.
"Unfortunately, my foot was planted at the time, or the ankle would never have been broken. From the second I hit the ground, I knew something serious had happened. As I was being taken off the field, I kept saying to myself, 'Don't let this be the one, the injury that takes everything away from you.' "
The pain was just starting. It became almost unbearable when Nakamura was placed on the X-ray table.
"By then, the adrenaline had stopped pumping," Nakamura said. "Besides the fracture, you've also torn a lot of ligaments and damaged a lot of nerves. There is like a heat or burning inside, and at times, the pain was incredible."
Nakamura spent the next three weeks in a cast and four more weeks in a boot. Since the boot was removed, he hasn't missed a day of rehabilitation, which includes a lot of resistance against the ankle and functional movements.
There is still nerve damage and lack of feeling in his toes, but doctors have told Nakamura those problems will go away.
Nakamura doesn't want to return in just good enough shape to remain on the roster. He wants to continue his rise and hopefully become a starter, maybe the heir apparent to Reed.
"I want to get back to the point of where I was," Nakamura said. "I don't just want to make the roster and be an issue. I don't want to be the problem. I have set extremely high goals for myself, and I am going to keep shooting for them."
In another year or two, Nakamura should be entering his peak. For players like him, it's a three- to four-year process to become an impact player.
During his rehabilitation, Nakamura has maintained daily contact with Webb, who became a starting cornerback for four straight games before he was put on injured reserve after a knee injury in the 14th game of the season, against the Chicago Bears.
Between the two of them, there is a lot of potential. They could become two starters in the Ravens' secondary. But Nakamura is in no rush. He likes Reed. He wants him to return.
"The first year, you just learn how to play in the NFL," Nakamura said. "In the second year, you start applying it more mentally and physically because you can't let down in this league. You have to know formations and situations. Here in Baltimore, there are high expectations for the defense, from the fans to inside the locker room.
"Guys like Ed and Ray [Lewis], they won't have it any other way. If you don't give great effort, you won't be here long. That's why I told Ed at the end of the season that he has to come back. He is still a great player, and I've got a lot more to learn from him."