Five years after being the 43rd overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, Roman Harper has proven to be one of the best strong safeties in the league.
When fans think of him, they think of a tackling machine who excels close to the line of scrimmage. While it’s true that he finished near the top of the league’s safety group in 2010 in both stops and QB disruptions, there’s much more to him than that, especially off the field.
I recently talked with Roman about his free agent status, his “Harper’s Hope” foundation, and the impact Greg Williams has had on the New Orleans defense.
Nishant Shailendra (NS): How have you been this offseason?
Roman Harper (RH): I’ve been good, just relaxing, working out as much as I can and working on my golf game. I’m just trying to get a little better in every area but I’ve got a lot of time on my hands.
NS: This lockout is so frustrating just from a fan’s prospective, it’s got to be brutal from a player’s standpoint. What have you been doing to stay in shape and stay hungry?
RH: Working out at my high school and the with the Saints we’ve put on a big workout thing with Drew Brees and those guys which is a six week thing down at Tulane Stadium. Got some really good work in with some 7-on-7 drills and a little bit of team stuff so that was very good work for us there so now I’m going to go back to my college in the next month and work out there. Basically just trying to do everything I can to do the things that you naturally do on the football field and trying to incorporate those things into your workouts and your weight lifting.
NS: You were an early second round pick and after two pro bowl season and a Super Bowl Championship, the NFL labor laws prevented you from becoming unrestricted. What was your mindset going into last year and how did you deal with that situation?
RH: Last year this was all I had on my mind: I wanted to get a new deal done, I wanted to get an extension but they don’t have to pay me. I know how teams work and how people work. In the business world, if I don’t have to pay this person more money, then I’m probably not going to, it’s not like I’m going to do it out of the generosity in my heart because you know the owners and managers are trying to make as much money as they can anyway – if they can make more sales, more ticket sales, more drinks and keep winning while paying the players less and less then that’s more money in their pocket.
So, I understood that and decided that if I didn’t get anything done before the season then I didn’t want to work on anything or hear any offers during the season and I just wanted to go out there and focus on being the best football player I could by going out there, performing, and producing every week.
NS: Depending on how the labor agreement pans out, you might be in the same situation as last year or you might not even be a Saint. I know you’re practicing with the team, are you approaching this offseason like last years?
RH: I don’t worry about money because at the end of the day I can’t control that. I know that if I go out there and continue to play, my value will continue to rise because they’ll see the type of player I am. I did that last year and even though this year’s a different mindset at the same I just know that I’ve done so much that god’s going to bless me when it’s time for me to get my money.
NS: I know you’ve donated a tremendous amount of your time and money to various causes both in New Orleans and your home town. Two years ago you started the Harper’s Hope 4*1 Foundation. Tell me a bit about that.
RH: Harper’s Hope is based on after school programs for kids. So many times you see so many kids in trouble between the time they’re out of school and when their parents get home. My mom and I started looking into that and we came up with the idea for this foundation. We’re trying to get different programs and different things for the kids to get involved in around my hometown in Alabama [Prattville]. The larger we get here it’ll allow us to branch out.
We look for different ways to challenge kids, not just with athletics but academically as well. These are our youth and it’s important to try to give them different things to do so they’re not just on the streets with bad influences. My foundation has had a lot of success in a short period of time and as long as I can continue to try and push it I think it will continue to have success.
NS: Any events coming up for the foundation?
RH: We have a gold tournament coming up July 8th in Prattville Alabama with six to eight of my teammates and some other guys from around the league coming around to help support it. Last year, we had around 130-150 teams and it’ll probably be a bit more than that this year.
I had a reading contest with four different schools across the state earlier this year with the winning class in each school getting a pizza party hosted by me. It was a big hit with the kids. The kids that read the most in the school? I got them all an iPod touch. I really enjoyed that and hopefully we can get 8-12 schools involved next year.
NS: Let’s talk some football. I’ve mentioned you being a two-time pro bowler … statistically speaking you’ve always been a tackling machine but in 2010 you had a huge jump in forced fumbles. What is it about the way you play the game that has lead to guys dropping the rock when you hit them?
RH: I think the biggest thing is just an emphasis on trying to get the ball out. So many times, running backs are running and thinking about protecting their knees or something else and the ball becomes secondary, not their main focus and that’s when you’ve got to try and attack and try to get the ball out. That’s where I’ve had success and last year it seemed like every couple of games one or two balls were coming out so I don’t know what it was but I just tried to strike at it and make a play here or there.
If I can’t get my hands on the ball for an interception then I might as well try to force a fumble. I’m just trying to be a turnover machine and help my team get the ball back as much as I can and last year I was able to do it a few times.
NS: Coach Williams arrived in 2009 and implemented his incredibly aggressive 4-3 defense. One of the things that stands out to me is how much you improved against the run in 2009. What do you attribute that improvement to? Was it coach Williams’ influence, scheme or just natural development of you as one of the top safeties in the league?
RH: A little bit of all of that. You’ve got to tip your hat to Greg and his scheme, his aggressiveness. One of the things he’s not going to do is just let you line up and run the ball; you’re going to have to pick it up and throw it and that’s what you want. You can’t win ball games with teams just running it down your throat, chewing up the clock and gaining time of possession or else your offense feels pressure like they’ve got to try and do too much.
You’ve got to put pressure on these guys, throw off the timing of the quarterback and you’ve got to disrupt them any kind of way you can. Blitzing, pass coverage, anything. Greg understands that and we play smarter defense. Against the run we have guys in the box and we try to stay in our gaps. We just understand what teams like to do in certain situations and that’s what we play towards. We’re not going to let them do the things they love doing on the field against our defense. As a defense, understanding what we’re trying to take away and what we’re allowing them to have is the game.
NS: Last year, you played a total of 934 snaps on defense and you were asked to play pass coverage on 462 of them. We’ve already talked about you being an excellent run stopper but you have steadily improved in pass coverage as well. With NFL offenses using more and more empty backfield sets and throwing more and more what are you doing to continue to improve in coverage?
RH: You’ve got to continue to improve on man-to-man coverage. The biggest thing is on 3rd-and-long; we have to find ways to get off the field. We’ve got to understand what teams are going to try to do. Teams are going to try to get rid of the ball quickly against us and manage the clock against us because they don’t want our offense on the field. They understand that our defense breathes upon turnovers so they try to do little things, quick throws, get the ball out, not do too much or too exotic so that our blitz packages can’t effect their quarterback. At the end of the day, we’ve just got to make plays on third down and get off the field and we’ll be just fine.
NS: How to you handle a one on one assignment like Vernon Davis?
RH: Vernon is just so athletic, big and fast. The biggest thing is you’ve got to understand the routes he likes to run: the seam routes when he’s running down the middle or his corner routes, those are his strong points. Now when he gets the ball he’s so fast and that’s when he’s like a big receiver. Knowing when they’re looking forward to him and when they’re going to try and get him the ball is the only way to cover these guys. Everyone can throw and catch in this league but you try and limit those plays and when they do get the ball to him or make a play you have to make sure it’s where you wanted them to throw it so you’re ready.
NS: You’ve had the great fortune of playing with Drew Brees but talk to me about the other three young QB’s in the NFC South: Freeman, Ryan and Newton?
RH: Cam Newton? I think he’s going to be a monster. He just has to get the time in the league and I think he could be outstanding. You’ve got Matt Ryan who is clearly a big time talent for Atlanta. He’s still improving and he’s been able to turn that program around to the point where they’ve got a home field advantage there and they’ve got weapons. Freeman is like Big Ben, he can bring it. He’s such a hard sack and he’s really talented. Tampa Bay’s a really young team and Raheem’s got them going; they definitely believe in themselves right now.
NS: Because of this lockout, players and coaches haven’t been able to spend time in the offseason diving into playbooks or schemes. How much of an advantage do your Saints have with leaders like Brees, Vilma and yourself there to make sure there is continuity going into 2011?
RH: The team will have a slight advantage but you know, football is so crazy, you never know what could happen on any given Sunday. When a team gets hot at the right time… that’s all that really matters. These teams can get hot and then they’re rolling.
Roman gives it his all on and off the field. Not knowing how much money he’s going to make or even what team he might be playing for this fall doesn’t really phase him as he continues to go out and do the things you’re supposed to do both as a player and a citizen.
Whichever team is lucky enough to have his services is getting a man who is thoughtful, dedicated, and mature … and he can play the game.
Follow Nishant on Twitter @PFF_Nishant as well as our main Twitter feed @ProFootbalFocus
[Editor’s note: Nishant is a contributor our PFF Fantasy section where you can find much more outstanding work from the entire PFF Fantasy staff.]