It was time for a change of scenery, time for Roman Harper to shake things up. As a pro football player, he’d only ever known the Saints, and it was time for him — and for the organization, too — to try something new.
And so two years ago, after eight seasons with the Saints, the safety moved to Charlotte, joining the Carolina Panthers. But a part of him never left New Orleans, and this week he returned as a free agent.
“There’s always some things going on — festivals, Mardi Gras, things like that,” Harper said after practice Thursday. “I like to have fun. People know me. So I always kept a place here. I always wanted to call this my second home, Alabama being first.”
And this has felt like a homecoming. As he’s crossed town taking care of the minutiae of moving, Harper said he’s been met and greeted by the city, warmly welcomed back home.
But this ceremonious move is more than ceremonial. It has to be.
At 33 and after 10 NFL seasons, Harper comes home in the home stretch of his career. He’s a noted nurturer of young talent and a lauded locker-room presence, a player who “understands the culture that we’re trying to bring here,” Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said.
The Saints need him to be something more than that.
“It’s one thing to say, we’re just going to bring a player back because he’s a good leader, but at some point a veteran player needs to have a role playing,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “So we’ll have that.”
That role still is being defined, but it will involve snaps primarily in three-safety packages, Payton said, although he added that Harper “certainly” still can play in two-safety sets.
“He’ll be a guy closer to the ball than deeper off the ball,” Payton said. “I think he’s still a really good force player. He’s extremely smart. And there’s a calming influence he has when he’s in there.”
There will be duties, too, on special teams, where Harper said he hasn’t played in “about eight years.” Harper brought up his willingness to play special teams in meeting with the Saints before signing, Payton said.
That’s a significant piece of Harper’s return, Payton said, because when the Saints travel, “you don’t have the luxury to carry an extra safety to play, call it 20-25 snaps, and not on special teams.”
Whatever his role, carving out a place to contribute was key for Harper.
Though he has a deep affinity for the Saints — a bond deepened when he returned to New Orleans for former teammate Will Smith’s funeral in April — Harper also has been a contributor throughout his career, totaling 616 tackles, 18 sacks and 11 interceptions in 140 games.
Fond as he is of the organization, Harper had little interest in returning for the sake of being with the Saints.
“I didn’t want to waste my time,” he said. “I could be on the couch doing that.”
Payton said Harper has meant too much to the Saints for the team “to go through the mechanics of this and then all the sudden he’s going to play until training camp ends and then (we) make a decision or release him.”
So he and Allen have worked to devise a role that plays to Harper’s strengths.
“He’s generally been a really good player down around the ball, keeping him in the low and underneath zones,” Allen said. “He’s been a good pressure player off the edge. And he’s smart. He understands football. I think he’s a good addition for our room.”
Harper’s hoping to be a valuable addition on the field, too.
He knows he can’t be what he was in his Saints heyday. But he still can meet every teammate, still can be a presence in the locker room, still can make some plays.
“I’m going to play a lot less snaps than I’ve played in my career,” Harper said. “I’m on the back end of my career, and I see it. And I’m happy about it. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’m not mad about it. I’ve enjoyed every day of it. I’ve taken advantage of every second of it. It’s given me a whole bunch, and I’m just going to ride this thing out and enjoy it.”