CHARLOTTE – When he signed as a free agent this past offseason, veteran safety Roman Harper felt it would be seamless transition.
After eight seasons in New Orleans, he'd step in at strong safety and play alongside other veteran defensive backs like fellow-free agent additions Thomas DeCoud and Antoine Cason. Together, they would shore up the secondary, while Carolina's front seven, which remained intact, would dominate opponents just like in 2013.
It didn't quite go as planned.
Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy didn't play again after the season opener, and as a result, the Panthers' defensive front underwent a significant adjustment period. DeCoud was replaced in the starting lineup by rookie free safety Tre Boston in Week 13. Cason was released after the 12th game.
Harper was suddenly starting alongside two rookies (Boston and cornerback Bene Benwikere) and third-year cornerback Josh Norman in the secondary.
"It was a role that I was not expecting," Harper said. "I thought I was just going to come here and play. I had to come in and lead. I had to help coach some of these young guys."
And they made it work. Harper helped his young teammates study, helped them diagnose plays, made sure they were lined up properly. And the Panthers defense was at its best with those young defensive backs playing major roles late in the year.
"It was awesome," Harper said. "They were calling me uncle and all that, and we built some great bonds. I was able to help lead this team."
Harper, who ranked first on the team with a career-high four interceptions, thoroughly enjoyed his first season in Carolina. The change of scenery gave him a different outlook.
"This was new, and it was so refreshing," Harper said. "It was so good to be a part of a different locker room, a different group of DBs.
"I feel so much younger. I feel so much more appreciated as a player. It's just different. I appreciate this team for allowing me to be me."
Harper feels younger after a season with the youthful and energetic Panthers defensive backs, but he knows they call him "uncle" for a reason.
Harper's next NFL season will be his tenth, and it's an important personal milestone.
"My goal when I first got drafted was to play 10 years," Harper said. "Shoot, it's right around the corner. I'm looking it dead in the eye."
But for Harper, it's about more than just being on an NFL roster for 10 years. He's been a starter since he entered the league in 2006, and that's how he wants his career to end. He started all 16 games for Carolina in 2014, bringing his career totals to 124 games played with 120 starts.
"I've started almost every game my whole career," Harper said. "There's no reason for me to throw it by the wayside if I can still play."
Especially since he believes he can help Carolina make another postseason run in 2015.
"I still feel pretty good. I'm moving around well, I'm making plays. I don't look like I don't belong," Harper said. "I'm happy with where I'm at."