Harper's return a boost to Panthers struggling secondary

Roman Harper, the lone big-name free agent the Carolina Panthers signed during the offseason will finally play for the first time this preseason against Pittsburgh on Thursday night.

In 108 career games, Roman Harper has 655 tackles, 17 sacks and seven interceptions.

Jeremy Brevard / USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The lone big-name free agent the Carolina Panthers signed during the offseason will finally play for the first time this preseason against Pittsburgh on Thursday night. 

And it's none too soon for safety Roman Harper, who has missed nearly all of training camp because of a turf toe injury sustained on August 1, when he stepped on tight end Greg Olson's foot.

"You come in with a sense of wanting to fit in and do the different things and show your work," said Harper. "When you get injured, that kind of sets you back. Training camp is a time where guys work on things and physically come together as a team. 

"For me being gone, I was here but not really out there playing with the guys and going through the wars. It was kind of difficult."

Harper's return to the playing field may come just in the nick of time for the Panthers, whose patchwork secondary has looked mostly poor in the first three preseason games.

"Roman does have a veteran quality to himself," said Carolina coach Ron Rivera. "We're excited to have him around. What is missing is that veteran leadership presence."

Harper, a two-time Pro Bowler, comes to the Panthers after having spent the entirety of his eight-year career in New Orleans. He played in just nine games last season because of a knee injury suffered against Tampa in Week 2.

After the Panthers lost nearly everybody from their secondary from last season either due to being cut or free agency, they targeted the veteran Harper, 31, and signed him to a two-year deal for $4.5 million, with a $1.5 million signing bonus.

Considering the way Carolina has avoided free agents that make more than $2 million per year over the last several seasons, Harper's signing was viewed as a pretty big move.

"I definitely think I can help with a sense of attitude, with a sense of leadership," said Harper. "At times we can be better at open-field tackling, doing some different concepts and just kind of understanding our fit."

That's all well and good, but for somebody his age that has missed three-plus weeks of practice, it may take a while for him to round into shape.

And he's fully aware of that.

"I've got to get back out here and get into shape," said Harper. "I've tried to get into shape the best I can, but there's nothing like football shape -- getting out here in the heat and sweating in pads and running with a helmet and cleats. Now I'm just trying to see where I am confidence-wise and how I'm feeling. ...

"It felt good, putting on some pads and a helmet for the first time in three weeks. I thought I moved around well (in practice). It's touch-and-go at times, but overall it felt good."

Harper went on to say that he fully expects this injury and pain to linger all season.

"That's football," he said. "By the end of the Week 2 of preseason, there's always a little bit of pain. It's not about that. I've played with pain plenty of times. It's about being comfortable. I've got to be able to do my job, and it can't hinder me when I'm out there. If I'm going to be a hindrance, I won't be out there. If I'm going to be a positive, then I will be out there."

The Panthers are desperately counting on him being a big positive.

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