Defensive tackle Paul Soliai spent the past two years with the Atlanta Falcons, a stretch that coincided with the Carolina Panthers’ emergence as the class of the NFC South.
But it wasn’t just the Panthers’ winning culture Soliai noticed when the Falcons faced Carolina twice a season. It was the way the Panthers’ defense played with a youthful exuberance reminiscent of boyhood sandlot games.
Now Soliai will get to be a part of it after officially signing with the Panthers on Tuesday. The two-year deal is worth $7 million, including $4 million in 2016.
He said the Panthers were one of the first teams to approach him last week after Atlanta cut him last week two years into the five-year, $32 million contract he signed in 2014.
Soliai, 32, left open the possibility this season could be his last. And he plans to enjoy it playing with starting defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. Lotuleilei, entering his fourth season with the Panthers, bonded with Soliai over their shared University of Utah background and Polynesian heritage.
“It’s just like playing with your friends in the backyard, playing football. That’s what I see that they have – out there executing plays and having fun at the same time,” Soliai said during a conference call with Charlotte reporters. “The brotherhood they had, I could tell just talking to Star and the chemistry they had, too. It’s something I want to be a part of.”
Soliai, 6-foot-4 and 345 pounds, will come off the bench in Charlotte after being a starter the past six seasons. There were questions in Atlanta whether Soliai, who had success as a nose tackle in Miami, was a good fit in the 4-3 scheme installed by Falcons coach Dan Quinn before the 2015 season.
But Soliai says he can thrive in any system, and he’s prepared to be a rotational player for the Panthers.
“I just want to be a part of winning games and hopefully have a good season, maybe even the last year of my career,” he said. “If I have to come in and rotate in with Short and Star, that will be my role.”
Soliai, the Dolphins’ fourth-round pick in 2007, said he hasn’t decided whether this will be his final season.
“I’m getting down to the end of my career,” he said. “I’m going into my 10th season, not getting younger.”
Soliai battled a calf injury last season that eventually landed him on injured reserve in Week 17. But he says he feels healthy and is ready to contribute to a Panthers defense that lost some of its interior line depth this offseason when Dwan Edwards was released and Kyle Love became a free agent.
Soliai (pronounced SO-lee-eye) started 10 games for the Falcons in 2015, finishing with five quarterback hits, three tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. He has only 5.5 career sacks, with none during his 2011 Pro Bowl season in Miami.
But Panthers coach Ron Rivera believes Soliai can be effective helping the front four disrupt the quarterback.
“He’s a solid, run-defending big man, and at the same time he’s a guy that can push the pocket and apply middle pressure on the quarterback,” Rivera said. “I also think his space-eating ability will allow our linebackers to run.”
Soliai mentioned the same thing when referencing the Panthers’ Pro Bowl linebacking tandem of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
“I see the way they play – good linebackers, all these young players out there having fun, running to the ball,” he said.
Soliai texted with Lotulelei the past two days after the talks with the Panthers intensified. The two met several years ago when Soliai returned to Utah and someone told him to keep an eye on Lotulelei, who is of Tongan descent.
Soliai, who is Samoan, joked Tuesday about most Polynesians being related. Twitter users had fun with the Polynesian pairing Tuesday, suggesting nicknames ranging from Hog Poly’s (a take-off on GM Dave Gettleman’s hog molly phrase) to the Pacific Rim.
Soliai is just glad to have a friend to work out with, a sentiment he shared with Lotulelei via text.
“We’ll see what happens,” Soliai said.