Contrast Harper's contract with Troy Polamalu's, whose 2011 contract extension terms were four years, $36.5 million with a $10.55 million dollar signing bonus. For the uninitiated, Polamalu is widely-considered the best safety in the NFL.
In light of this comparison and the relative similarity in contract terms, it's apparent that the Saints' front office highly values Roman Harper and considers him an integral part of the franchise, as well as one of the best safeties in the league.
Popular sentiment on Harper's value seems to differ, however.
In the Saints' 2010 wild card playoff loss against the Seahawks, Roman Harper played perhaps his worst game as a professional. On the heels of Harper's performance, Saints fans and the national media alike roundly ridiculed Harper. And speculation further mounted that the Saints would not sign him to a rich contract extension, and instead let him test the free agent market.
This, as we know, never happened and Harper was handsomely rewarded. So what gives? Is Harper worthy of the contract? Or is he overpaid? Why would the Saints pay him in line with the top safeties in the league if popular sentiment seems to suggest that he isn't?
A glance at some data might provide more insight.
The sampling of data that follows reflects statistics on NFL safeties from 2006 to the current season to date. In these various statistical categories, I've included both the top-performing safeties in each category and some familiar, top-rated safeties to see where they rank as well. This data is compiled from the exceptionally-fantastic www.pro-football-reference.com.
The first table is a simple breakdown of the leading tacklers among NFL safeties since 2006. Harper ranks third among this group; further, among the top four tacklers, Harper has played the fewest games.
What's important to extrapolate from this stat is that Harper is frequently "around the ball;" he's an efficient tackler; and he's highly impactful stopping the opponent's run game--perhaps his most-valued skill. Among current Saints defenders, Harper ranks second in tackles per game (4.9) behind only Jonathan Vilma (5.3).
|Games||Sacks & Tackles|
This second table shows that Harper leads all NFL safeties in sacks since the 2006 season. Sacks, highly influential events, play an integral role in a defense's capacity to operate adequately and efficiently.
That Harper is likely the very best blitzing safety in the league, combined with Gregg Williams' blitz-centric scheme, reflects Harper's high value to the function and philosophy of the defense.
Last week against the Bears, Harper recorded two sacks as the Saints limited the Bears to 13 points.
|Games||Sacks & Tackles|
Combined with his elite ability to sack the QB is Harper's frequency at forcing turnovers. Since 2006, Harper is third among NFL safeties with 13 forced fumbles. In a league where turnover differential is paramount to success, having a player like Harper who is adept at separating the ball from the opponent is a highly-valued and sought-after skill.
And Harper, as the stats show, is one of the best at this. Last season alone, Harper was second overall among all NFL defenders in forced fumbles (6), trailing only the New York Giants' DE Osi Umenyiora (10)
Where Harper is exploitable, most obviously, is in man-to-man pass coverage. And while this flaw has been exposed by opposing offenses in the past, and remains a liability to the defense, it's not a fatal flaw nor is it irreparable. More specifically, Harper is not as poor in pass coverage as it seems. Since 2006, he ranks 19th in "passes defended" among the top-100 rated safeties. While certainly not elite, it's certainly not terrible either.
Remember that Harper is still only 28, and there is room for improvement in this area. Combined with Gregg Williams' tactics to minimize this area of weakness, there's no reason--at all--to believe that Roman Harper is a liability in general. It's unreasonable to think that every player has to be perfect in every area of the game. Instead, it's incumbent upon coaches to minimize exposure to team weaknesses.
For Harper, a poor performance in a nationally-televised post season game has generated perceptions that fall far short of reality.
The reality is that Harper is mostly a high-performing safety who's made consecutive Pro Bowl appearances and plays a key role for the Saints' defense.