CHARLOTTE – As a two-time Pro Bowler with eight NFL seasons under his belt, safety Roman Harper is as equipped as anyone to get up to speed following an extended absence.
But with the season fast approaching and Harper entering his first season with the Panthers, it was nice to see him return to practice Sunday, two weeks before the regular season opener at Tampa Bay.
"I was excited coming to work today knowing that Roman was going to be out there," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "He's been doing a good job in meetings, but there's a difference between that and actually getting reps.
"There's still a process he's got to go through, and he's got to continue to get acclimated to what we do and how we do things as far as our system, as well as getting used to working with the guy to his left and right. We've got to iron all that out in a short amount of time."
Harper, who signed with the Panthers this offseason after playing for the NFC South rival New Orleans Saints his entire career, hadn't practiced since stepping on a teammate's foot on August 1 and suffering a toe injury that developed into turf toe.
"I stepped on Greg's foot," Harper said. "Greg Olsen. I wouldn't be here if it was Hardy. He would bury me."
McDermott was also happy to see rookie safety Tre Boston increase his workload Sunday. The Panthers' fourth-round draft choice underwent surgery for a sports hernia in June and then suffered a groin injury during his first training camp practice July 29.
Linebacker Chase Blackburn (back) also practiced for the first time since August 13 and plans to play when the Panthers wrap up the preseason Thursday night at the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"It felt great. I tested it out yesterday, ran today and did everything all of practice. Everything was good," Blackburn said. "Not playing for two weeks, I at least want to get some reps and get back in a game situation for some live reps."
That's even more so the case for Harper, who is yet to take his first official snap as a Panther.
"I just want to get out there in a Panthers uniform, come out of a tunnel somewhere and make it count," Harper said. "I just want to do my part. It's going to come, but I've got to be patient.
"It felt good, putting on some pads and a helmet for the first time in three weeks. I thought I moved around well. It's touch-and-go at times, but overall it felt good."
Turf toe injuries are known for causing debilitating pain, and Harper isn't out of the woods yet. At the same time, it's nothing new for him.
"That's football. By the end of the week two of preseason, there's always a little bit of pain," Harper said. "It's not about that. I've played with pain plenty of times.
"It's about being comfortable. I've got to be able to do my job, and it can't hinder me when I'm out there. If I'm going to be a hindrance, I won't be out there. If I'm going to be a positive, then I will be out there."
The Panthers, who have turned to Robert Lester and Anderson Russell to play alongside former Atlanta Falcons standout Thomas DeCoud in the first three preseason games, certainly believe Harper will help.
It's only a matter of time – hopefully sooner than later – before Harper will be fully up to speed, both physically and mentally.
"I've tried to stay in shape as much as I can, but there's nothing like football shape – getting out here in the heat and sweating in pads and running with a helmet and cleats," Harper said. "Now I'm just trying to see where I am confidence-wise and how I'm feeling. Today was a good day.
"I came here wanting to fit in and show my worth, and then an injury set me back. Not being able to play with the guys going through the wars was difficult, but it felt good to be out there today."