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John DeShazier: Roman Harper brings more than wisdom to New Orleans

Coach Sean Payton has clear vision on how veteran safety will be used

The New Orleans Saints' locker room personnel have changed significantly since the 2013 season, when last Roman Harper occupied a cubicle inside it.

"I've been gone two years and I look around the locker room and I know more coaches than I do players," Harper said Thursday. "It's weird."

So, too, Harper has changed.

No longer is he the spry, second-round draft pick of 2006. Or the quarterback-seeking safety of 2011 who led the Saints with 7.5 sacks, the best single-season total posted by a Saints defensive back since the NFL officially began recording sacks in 1982. Or the 951-snap playing starter – 86.5 percent of the defensive snaps – who helped the Carolina Panthers finish 15-1 in the 2015 regular season and advance to the Super Bowl.

But the Saints, and Harper, believe the 33-year-old veteran he has something left in the tank in addition to wisdom. And the two have reunited after a brief hiatus.

"With Roman, he's been two years away," Coach Sean Payton said Thursday. "It's just a presence with him. We had a good visit when he came in. The key was creating the role and understanding what are his strengths.

"It's one thing to say, 'Hey, 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. We'll have that. (Defensive coordinator) Dennis (Allen) and I talked for a while about it. It's great to have him back. Look, if you start through his career – '06, '09, '10, '11, '13, '14, '15 – those are all playoff teams. For a guy that's played in the league for 10 years, that's pretty impressive.

"He'll be a guy in the three-safety package, he'll be a guy closer to the ball than deeper off the ball. I think he's still a real good force player, he's extremely smart and there's a calming influence he has when he's in there. But (he'll be) closer to the ball in some of the three-safety packages, and certainly a guy that can play in the two-safety package defense.

"But it was really about a fit before we did something like this. I've got too much respect for Roman to go through the mechanics of this and then, all of a sudden, he's going to play till training camp ends and then make a decision to release him. To bring in someone like that who has meant as much as he has to our program, there was a lot of thought given to, what kind of snaps."

Harper said that clear vision – he also expects to play on special teams – helped make his decision to rejoin the Saints an easy one.

"Special teams will be a part of it," Payton said. "He brought that up in the visit. A guy like him that knows who he is – and Bill (Parcells) used to say this all the time – can play a long time in this league.

"What keeps guys from playing a long time often times is they never adjust to their own vision. And it was something he brought up. If you're going into the game, you don't have the luxury to carry an extra safety to play 20, 25 snaps and not on special teams. That's something that he can do."

It's something for which Harper will require a few refresher courses.

 "I've got to get warmed up," he said, smiling, about his role on special teams. "I probably haven't done special teams in about eight years, so I'm looking forward to it, just the challenges of it.

"(On defense) I'm going to compete, I'm going to get out there, fly around and just fill in different spots and things like that and just trying to relearn this defense. D.A. (Dennis Allen) has done a good job of just trying to hone in on some of things that they used to do. I'm just trying to dive back in and really infiltrate this locker room and bring it up, not only on defense but throughout this whole team.

"I didn't want to just waste my time. I could be on the couch doing that. All these things, we talked about and I think we had a great understanding of what they needed out of me, what they wanted out of me. Because that was one of the biggest questions: What are we going to get out of this on both sides, what am I coming here for, what do they need from me and what do I need from them? Once we hashed all these things out, I was excited about the opportunity to come back."

Partially, Harper didn't leave New Orleans even though he joined the NFC South Division rival Panthers for the 2014-15 seasons. He maintained a residence in New Orleans, a place he calls his second home (after Prattville, Ala.) and maintained a relationship with the Saints players who remained after his departure.

"I was just staying in constant contact with this coaching staff and things of that nature," Harper said. "It's always been family; it's just business, there are no ill feelings or anything like that, I've got to do what I've got to do and they've got to do what they've got to do."

What the two hope to do now, again, is find a way to be successful together.

Harper is one of the most productive defensive backs in franchise history. He appeared in 108 regular season games, with 104 starts, for the Saints from 2006-13. He registered 743 tackles (525 solo), the highest total by a Saint during that eight-season period, and also had 17 sacks, seven interceptions, 53 passes defensed, 13 forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 39 special teams stops.

He's the only safety in Saints history to be selected to two Pro Bowls (2009 and 2010) and his 17 sacks are the most in franchise history by a New Orleans defensive back. Harper was a part of teams that won three NFC South titles, qualified for the playoffs five times and captured Super Bowl XLIV. He started seven of eight postseason games, posting 47 tackles (29 solo), 1.5 sacks, six passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two special team stops.

He said his time with Carolina was a great learning experience.

"(I learned) there's more than one way to do it," Harper said. "You can be successful doing it multiple ways, but you've got to find your niche on every team. Every team kind of builds its own personality, its own identity from year to year.

"It's all about the approach that you come to work with every day and the mentality when you step in between those white lines of how you're trying to get things done. When you do it the right way, good things happen. When you put team first over self, success usually follows that."

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