Roman Harper wanted to feel young again.
That’s why it didn’t hurt him when the Saints released him in February after he spent his first eight years in the NFL with them. The overarching on- and off-field philosophies, the practice schedule, the locker room — everything felt the same.
And he thirsted for something new.
“You felt like you knew it all,” said Harper, now with the Carolina Panthers (3-4-1), who are preparing to host the Saints (3-4) on Thursday night for the first time since they acquired the safety in free agency. “You’ve been in the same system for so long.”
During a conference call Tuesday, Harper added that on a new team, “It’s all fresh. You’re a new face. You’re not like the old girlfriend — you’re the good-looking girl you see walking across the street.”
It wasn’t always that way for a talented blitzer the Saints selected out of Alabama in the second round of the 2006 draft, the first with coach Sean Payton in charge of the franchise.
From then through last season, Harper recorded 17 sacks, leading the team one year with seven of those. He recovered three fumbles, intercepted seven passes and became the only Saints safety ever to make more than one Pro Bowl (he was chosen for two). He helped the team win its lone Super Bowl title, clinch its division on three occasions and reach the playoffs five times.
“He was one of the centerpieces,” Payton said Tuesday. “He’s been a part of all the things that we built.”
Furthermore, by all accounts, Harper behaved like a consummate professional even after the Saints drafted a player at his position in 2013: Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro, a starter alongside Rafael Bush these days.
“You could tell he always wanted me to get better, to grow as a rookie,” said Vaccaro, noting that Harper was forthcoming with all he had learned about the team’s playing principles. “I don’t think it was a thing where he was like, ‘Forget that rookie — he’s not going to take my spot.’ It was like, ‘OK, obviously they brought him in to build for the future.’
“It was a relief to be replacing someone like Roman. It’s always tougher when they’re not helping you — there’s tension, you feel awkward all the time. ... He was real selfless.”
Nonetheless, when the Saints were purging veteran salaries after the 2013 campaign, they cut Harper, who was due more than $3.1 million in pay and bonuses this season. That was an inevitability he began accepting the moment the Saints drafted Vaccaro.
“They want to see their (new) guys have success, and I had a lot of success for them for a long time,” Harper said about the Saints’ cutting him after Vaccaro’s rookie year. “It’s no hard feelings. It’s just part of it.”
Plus, Harper remarked, “I was ready to move on, and they were, too.”
Certainly, not many players would object at the outcome Harper has experienced so far. He was leading the Panthers at the midway point of their season with three interceptions, which tied a single-year career high for him. He enjoyed having to go around the locker room introducing himself to new colleagues and soliciting information about the way things work as if he were a rookie again.
Also, at training camp, the Panthers gave him a day off from practice simply because he was a veteran and not because he was injured — a neat privilege he never got in New Orleans.
“It was the freakin’ best day off,” Harper said Tuesday.
All of which taught Harper two things.
It’s possible to stay in one place too long. And it’s possible to metaphorically turn the clock back at a new place.
“It’s been very, very refreshing,” Harper said of his switch to Carolina, forced as it was. “It’s really kind of just upstarted my whole career again.”