- Associated Press - Thursday, June 9, 2016

METAIRIE, La. (AP) - A cursory look around the New Orleans Saints’ locker room was all veteran safety Roman Harper needed to realize how much had changed with the franchise since he left two years ago.

“I know more coaches than players,” Harper, who was signed on Tuesday, said after an offseason practice on Thursday.

“I’ve got to really dive in, show them who I am as a person, get to know each and every guy and just try and help.”

Harper, who spent his first eight seasons in New Orleans and the past two in Carolina, said he would not have returned if the club wasn’t serious about giving him a regular role in the defense. But he doesn’t expect to start, either.

“I didn’t want to just waste my time. I could be on the couch doing that,” Harper said. “I think we had a great understanding.”

Indeed, coach Sean Payton said the re-acquisition of Harper wasn’t merely a tryout for a player winding down his career.

“Obviously, I have too much respect for Roman to go through the mechanics of this and then, all of a sudden, he’s going to play until training camp ends and then make a decision to release him,” Payton said.

“So 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” he’ll play.

When Harper played in New Orleans from 2006 to 2013, which included five playoff seasons and the club’s only championship, he was a starting strong safety who thrived on blitzes and against the run, but who sometimes struggled in pass coverage, particularly deep downfield.

In recent seasons, however, the Saints have used three-safety formations on certain downs and distances, and it appears there is a role for Harper to fit in there. It would allow him to remain a player who can provide pressure on the quarterback, defend running plays or cover short passing routes run by tight ends or running backs.

“He’ll be a guy closer to the ball rather than deeper off the ball,” Payton said. “He’s extremely smart. There’s a calming influence he has when he’s in there. But (he will be) closer to the ball and in some of the three-safety packages.”

The Saints have both incumbent starters at safety - Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd - returning this season. Harper doesn’t see himself as a potential replacement for either of them at this point.

“I know I’m going to play a lot less snaps than I’ve played in my career. I’m on the back end of my career. I see it,” Harper said. “I’m not mad about it. … I’m just going to ride this thing out, enjoy it.”

Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen was New Orleans’ secondary coach during the 2009 and 2010 seasons, when Harper was selected to Pro Bowls.

Allen said bringing back Harper was Payton’s idea, but stressed, “I was certainly in favor of it.”

“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.”

Harper also has agreed to play special teams, something he said he has not done “in about eight years.”

“I’m looking forward to it, just the challenges of it,” Harper said. “I’m going to compete, going to get out there and fly around.”

Coaches said they also viewed Harper as an exceptional leader and hope he can be again, even as he returns in a different role.

“As we got into that 09 season and on into 10, he really understood what it took to be a pro and he really became the leader of that secondary group,” Allen said. “That’s something that we can use.”

Harper said being away for two seasons helped rejuvenate him and further honed his leadership skills. He was a starter the past two years with the Panthers, helping the club reach the Super Bowl last season.

One of the keys to his success in Carolina, he said, was his understanding that leading by example is not always enough. He also made an effort to know his teammates personally.

“It’s hard to lead guys when they don’t think you care about them, so you’ve got to break down those barriers of trust,” Harper said. “That’s when you start to play together; you start to jell.”

Notes: Outside linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha, a second-round pick in 2015 who had four sacks and four forced fumbles last season, was absent from practice on Thursday. While the Saints and Kikaha’s agent, Marvin Demoff, did not respond to questions about the reason for Kikaha’s absence, several teammates acknowledged that he was injured. Defensive end Cameron Jordan, now a senior member of the Saints’ defensive front, said he viewed Obum Gwacham, Kasim Edebali and Davis Tull as players who could step in if Kikaha - who had two left anterior cruciate ligament tears in college at Washington - is sidelined for an extended period.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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