ATLANTA -- In an effort to potentially address a return game that often sputtered in 2006, the Atlanta Falcons have signed Japanese-born wide receiver Noriaki Kinoshita, who played the past three seasons in the NFL Europa league.
Kinoshita, 24, signed a two-year contract and the deal includes NFL minimum base salaries of $285,000 for 2007 and $370,000 for 2008. As part of his biographical information in the Amsterdam Admirals' media guide, Kinoshita listed the Falcons as his favorite NFL team.
"I'm excited to have Nori compete in training camp with us," Atlanta first-year coach Bobby Petrino said Friday in a statement. "We've already had stiff competition at the wide receiver position throughout our minicamps and offseason workouts, and Nori's presence now adds even more to that position. We are also interested to see his return skills."
In fact, it is Kinoshita's ability as a return man, more so than his receiving skills, by which the Falcons are most intrigued.
The native of Osaka led NFL Europa this spring in punt return average. He had nine returns for a 19.2-yard average and one touchdown. Kinoshita was fourth in the league in kickoff runbacks, averaging 23.6 yards on 23 returns. He also registered 21 receptions for 308 yards and two touchdowns, and his 909 all-purpose yards were second most in the league.
In 2006, Kinoshita led NFL Europa in kickoff returns, averaging 29.9 yards per runback.
Although a definite long shot, Kinoshita (5-feet-9, 178 pounds) figures to get considerable exposure in training camp this summer as the Falcons attempt to upgrade the return element of their special teams units. Atlanta ranked in the middle of the NFL pack in kickoff return average (22.7 yards) in 2006 but was just 26th in punt return average (7.8 yards).
Kinoshita, who played college football at Ritsumeikan University of Kyoto, is the second Japanese-born player to sign with the Falcons. In 2000, the team signed tight end Nachi Abe to a 10-day contract as part of the Falcons' preseason game in Tokyo that year.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.