Roman Harper: Was "The Neck" Worth the Check?

Roman Harper

With the New Orleans Saints enjoying their bye week in Week Eleven, I’ve decided to take a look at the roster for any interesting story I could find.  With the Black and Gold sitting high and mighty at 7-3, things are looking up for the Saints following their victory last weekend over their division rivals, the Atlanta Falcons.  When people re-watch that contest, many will remember the key fourth-down stop to help seal the deal in Overtime as the prime defensive moment.  Living in the shadow of that hype, though, was a player who has come under intense scrutiny over the past two seasons.  In last week’s contest against the “Dirty Birds,” this man may have had the game of his life.  At the end of the day, he recorded 16 tackles, two altered passes, one sack, one pass defended and two tackles for a loss.  Love him or hate him, he’s quietly putting together a decent season.  His name is Roman Harper, and he is the strong safety on the New Orleans Saints’ defense.  This man is our topic of conversation for the day.

Now, when you first read the name “Roman Harper,” what was your first thought that came to mind?  I know what plenty of you immediately thought of.  The Saints’ playoff loss in Seattle during the 2010 season is one to throw into the memory shredder; however, it’s simply too fresh in the minds of the “Who Dat Nation” to forget.  So let’s recall the game that ultimately changed the way New Orleans looked at their stud SS.  In that matchup at CenturyLink Field (formerly called Qwest Field) last postseason, Harper allowed not one, not two, but three TDs to the opposing Seahawks, all due to blown coverages on his part.  The first was a connection between QB Matt Hasselbeck and TE John Carlson, as Carlson slipped behind Harper’s weak coverage to bring in seven.  The second was again to Carlson, who was left open with Harper bouncing around in coverage.  The third TD came via 34-year old WR Brandon Stokley, who slipped behind the entire Saints’ secondary (Harper included) to add another score to the board.  It was a day that will live in infamy for Saints fans, and it was one that had people questioning the value of their defensive back.

So when the Saints decided that it would be a good idea to re-sign Harper to a four-year, $28.5 million ($16 million in guarantees) contract this past offseason, New Orleans appeared to be in revolt.  I mean comon, how on Earth could the front office offer such a contract to a player who had literally cost them a playoff game?  Now, this frustration was understandable.  It’s time to take a look at the situation from the other side of the story, though.

Since first becoming a Saint in 2006, Harper has been as solid as they come at the SS position.  He has registered 16 sacks, 14 forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, four interceptions, one defensive TD and 475 tackles (396 solo tackles) in 77 games played.  From 2007-2010, Harper ranked second on the defense each season in the “total tackles” category, and he led the team in “solo tackles” in 2010 (76).  Without a doubt, 2007 was his prime year for INTs, as he recorded 3 out of his four total picks that season.  All in all, to say that Harper was a terrible SS would not only be a lie, but it would be entirely opinionated.  The Saints’ front office clearly didn’t want to label the Seattle contest as the prime reason not to pay the now 28-year old, so they decided to dish out the money and move on with one of the better one-two safety tandems in the NFC. 

So now the question remains:  will that contract end up being worth the money?

For anyone who has watched this season, that question is still up for debate.  Harper has had his ups and downs during the 2011 campaign.  Whether it was a plethora of blown assignments in the opening contest against the Green Bay Packers or a late hit in the end zone against the Carolina Panthers, Harper has given fans some room to criticize.  On the flip side, though, his statistics have been remarkable considering the defensive scheme that he plays in.  Under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who is a “blitz-first” play caller and has an aggressive mindset, Harper seems to fit right in.  Harper currently leads the team in tackles, as he’s registered 69 this season (54 solo).  He also has two more sacks than any other defensive player on the Saints, as his 6.5 QB takedowns currently leads the squad.  Over the course of the season, he has been an absolute headache when approaching the line of scrimmage, as he has 8.5 total tackles (including sacks) behind the LOS, resulting in 54 yards lost for opposing offenses. 

With all of that praise from myself, though, comes some criticism.  Although Harper has been amazing in the blitz packages, he has struggled mightily when in coverage.  To say that he has picked up right where he left off last season may be an understatement, as opposing TEs/WRs have been finding daylight in his zones since Week One.  Honestly, I’ve come to the ultimate conclusion that Harper is simply a liability in pass coverage, and he’s only truly effective when he makes his presence known as he approaches the LOS, whether he’s blitzing or not.  And when he dropped that game-ending INT against the Falcons last week (or should I say, “When he took that INT to the facemask last week…”), I know I wasn’t the only one putting my face in the palm of my hands.  The lack of INTs has been frustrating; granted, he is a SS, so there is only so much you can expect in that category. 

Regardless, Roman Harper is what he is.  He’s been as good as they come at the SS position for the Black and Gold since his arrival five years ago, and he’s still putting fear into opposing QBs in the one way he knows how, via the blitz.  Both he and youngster Malcolm Jenkins have proved to be a solid combo in the Saints’ defensive backfield, and they should continue to be one for the next few years to come.

 So maybe it is time to get off Harper’s back for a bit.  The man took his licks at the end of last season, and now he’s looking to redeem himself with a standout performance in 2011.  Under all that gray hair is a guy who understands that he’s going to be under fire until he truly redeems himself in the hearts of the “Who Dat Nation.”  Maybe it will be this season; maybe it won’t.  Whatever you think of him, though, one thing is for certain:  he is changing the way opposing offenses game-plan for the Saints.  And sometimes, that’s enough to make any true fan respect him.

Back to the New Orleans Saints Newsfeed