Saints’ Sharper asserts he hasn’t lost his edge

Published 4:03 am Thursday, June 11, 2009

METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Darren Sharper says anyone who thinks he’s lost his edge should reserve judgment until he’s played the better part of a season with his new team.

“We’ll see,” Sharper said matter-of-factly, shortly after intercepting a pass during a voluntary offseason practice with the New Orleans Saints this week. “Come to me about Week 10.”

It would have been easy to conclude the veteran safety’s career was in decline last season, when he had one interception. The former four-time Pro Bowl selection twice had nine-interception seasons during his 12-year career with Green Bay and Minnesota.

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“I didn’t get as many opportunities as I would have liked” in 2008, Sharper said. “That could be because teams might not throw in your direction, the style of defense your team plays. It could be a lot of different things.

“Sometimes you’re going to have those types of years as a defensive player, but you come back and the next year might be a year when the ball kind of bounces your way and you just know it kind of goes like that. It’s kind of that ebb and flow.”

After spending the past four seasons with the Vikings, the currents of Sharper’s career have carried the 33-year-old down to the opposite end of the Mississippi River, where the Saints have been trying to revamp a defense that ranked 23rd in the NFL against the pass last year.

New Orleans gave up five plays of 40 or more yards last season, including a 67-yard touchdown. Saints opponents completed 53 passes of 20 or more yards.

An overhaul of the Saints’ defense began last January with the hiring of new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Two months later, the Saints signed Sharper.

Gone are the two players who started at free safety in 2008; Kevin Kaesviharn was released and Josh Bullocks left in free agency. Usama Young, who’d been drafted as a cornerback in 2007, has been moved to free safety, but for now is Sharper’s backup.

Fourth-year strong safety Roman Harper has been working with Sharper on the first team in practice as they learn Williams’ scheme together.

“They brought him in here for a reason,” Harper said. “If he can’t play, he’s going to be over there teaching anyway, but right now he’s in great shape. He looks like a young 33 to me.”

Harper said Sharper’s experience is obvious in practice, when, before the snap, he’s tipping off defensive teammates on the play the offense is about to run.

“It’s like he already knows what’s coming,” Harper said. “He’ll beat the receiver there and be right there on the ball. He’s had chances for interceptions already and he’s made a few.”

Sharper describes Williams’ approach as a “perfect fit.”

“I love Gregg to death,” Sharper said. “This is probably the most fun I’ve had in a system in all my years.”

What remains to be seen is whether happiness and a new environment produces a resurgence in Sharper’s numbers. Even the Saints needed to be convinced. The one-year contract the Saints gave him, worth about $1.7 million including bonuses, is not exactly a huge commitment.

Sharper said he appreciates that statistics do matter, even if they can be misleading.

“From the outside looking in, a lot of people do put a lot of stock in the stats and how many interceptions this guy has and how many sacks and things of that nature,” Sharper said. “And don’t get me wrong. This is a production business. You have to put up numbers and I understand that.”

Sharper has 54 interceptions — eight of which he returned for TDs — and nine forced fumbles in his career. He pondered what might have happened if he’d been a free agent following the 2007 season, when he intercepted four passes, returned one for a score and made his fourth Pro Bowl.

“What would be the difference if I was a free agent then, as compared to last year, when I get one interception and you know, my contract’s up?” Sharper began. “It kind of happens like that, but like I said, it all worked out well because I’m in a place I want to be, and that’s here.”