Roman Harper’s brother reminded him recently the first NFL jersey Harper owned growing up was the No. 21 of former Carolina Panthers running back Tim Biakabutuka.
Harper, a former New Orleans Saints safety who signed a two-year contract with Carolina on Tuesday, will wear No. 41 with the Panthers. That jersey most recently belonged to cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who signed with Minnesota last week.
But the Panthers’ offseason transaction that Harper had the hardest time getting his head around was the team’s decision to release Steve Smith, the franchise’s all-time receiving leader.
“It’s mind-blowing,” Harper said. “When you think of the Carolina Panthers, you think of that guy. He’s probably been the one constant, consistent player for 10, 12, 13 years. I would love to play with that guy because I know how much he competes. I know how great of a player he is.”
The Panthers are still searching for Smith’s successor, as well as replacements for three other receivers they lost in free agency – Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon.
Pittsburgh Steelers free-agent receiver Jerricho Cotchery wrapped up his visit with the Panthers on Tuesday but left without a signed contract, according to a league source. Cotchery, 31, a former N.C. State standout who caught a career-high 10 touchdown passes in 2013, will decide between the Panthers and Steelers, the source said.
A decision could come as early as Wednesday.
The Panthers made Harper’s signing official Tuesday after the two agreed to terms last week. The deal is worth a reported $4.5 million, including a $1.5 million signing bonus.
Harper, 31, who went to two Pro Bowls during his eight seasons in New Orleans, is expected to step in at strong safety for a Panthers defense that ranked No. 2 last season behind Super Bowl-champion Seattle.
“I’m not here to change anything. I’m not here to take over this team. I’m here to add to it,” Harper said during a conference call with reporters. “I know it’s a great fit for me and my skill set to come over and help on this defense. They don’t need a lot of help.”
Harper’s 17 sacks since entering the league in 2006 as the Saints’ second-round pick from Alabama are the most by any defensive back in the league during that span. Harper has talked with Sean McDermott about how the Panthers’ defensive coordinator gets his defensive backs involved in blitz packages.
“It’s a great fit,” Harper said. “The front seven is amazing. We’ve just got to stay healthy. You’ve got linebackers like Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly running around, hitting everybody. (Greg) Hardy and these other guys up front. (Charles) Johnson is a proven player in this league. They’ve got two rookie D tackles that have really stepped up.”
Harper made five starts last season, when he missed seven games with a knee injury and was phased out in favor of rookie Kenny Vaccaro.
But Harper played well when he returned to the starting lineup at the end of the season. He had five tackles in the Saints’ playoff loss to the Seahawks.
“When I’m healthy I play at an extremely high level, and I know I can compete and play at a high level in this league,” Harper said. “I know I can still do that. I just want to continue to do that until it’s time for me to go. And it’s not time for me to go, yet.”
Harper said he wanted to go to a warm-weather city and play for a winning team. He was among several veterans the Saints cut for salary-cap purposes.
The Panthers like Harper’s knowledge of the NFC South.
Harper is best known among Panthers fans for his late hit on Smith in a game three years ago after Smith slowed down to cross the goal line on a touchdown catch. Harper was penalized and fined $15,000 for the hit, which led to a fight between several players from both teams.
But Harper said he and Smith had a mutual respect.
“We’ve had our run-ins, but when you play a team twice a year you’re going to have those,” Harper said. “He will be missed around here I’m sure, even though I’ve never been his teammate. I know he runs his mouth, but he knows I talk back. So it’s been fun.”
Thomas, 29, has 12 career interceptions, including back-to-back seasons with five in 2009 and 2010. Thomas has the distinction of being the second NFL player in history to return from three ACL surgeries to the same knee – the first being the Panthers’ Davis.
Thomas is a close friend to Davis, who spoke to him frequently when Thomas tore his ACL for a third time in 2012. Thomas also knows Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman, who was a Giants executive for 15 years.
The Panthers have yet to address the hole at cornerback left by Munnerlyn’s departure. Jonathan Jones contributed.