- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers finally will get a look at their restructured secondary that was a big question mark entering the preseason in Thursday night's preseason finale at Pittsburgh.
Strong safety Roman Harper returned to practice this week for the first time since suffering turf toe after stepping on the foot of tight end Greg Olsen during an Aug. 1 practice in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
The two-time Pro Bowler with New Orleans was signed to a two-year, $4.5 million deal to bring stability to a secondary that lost three of four starters -- two in free agency.
"I definitely think I can help with a sense of attitude, with a sense of leadership," Harper said. "At times we can be better at open-field tackling, doing some different concepts and just kind of understanding our fit."
Coach Ron Rivera has been emphatic that Harper's absence in practice and the first three preseason games wasn't an issue even though the defense has given up some big pass plays. He's reminded that Quintin Mikell started last season's opener at strong safety after signing a week earlier.
He also could have reminded that free safety Mike Mitchell, who went to Pittsburgh in free agency, didn't become a starter until after the secondary was decimated by injuries in Week 2.
But Rivera is glad Harper is back.
"Roman does have a veteran quality to himself," he said. "We're excited to have him around. What is missing is that veteran leadership presence."
Harper is glad he's returning before playing his first regular-season game -- Sept. 7 at Tampa Bay -- as a Panther.
"Not even so much [for getting ready for] Tampa Bay, but more so for myself," he said. "I've got to get back out here and get into shape. I've tried to get in shape as best as I can, but there's nothing like football shape."
Harper won't discuss whether the toe is completely healed, reminding he doesn't discuss injuries. But he admitted being a spectator for more than three weeks with a new team hasn't been easy.
"You come in with a sense of wanting to fit in and do the different things and show your work," Harper said. "When you get injured, that kind of sets you back. Training camp is a time where guys work on things and physically come together as a team.
"For me being gone, I was here but not really out there playing with the guys and going through the wars. It was kind of difficult."
With Harper, Carolina's secondary is set. Thomas DeCoud, a free agent from Atlanta, will start at free safety. Antoine Cason, a free agent from Arizona, will start at one cornerback and returning starter Melvin White will be on the other side.
Harper's return means either Anderson Russell or Robert Lester likely will become expendable when the team shrinks its roster to 53 players. Russell has started the past two preseason games over Lester, who missed the past two practices with an ankle injury.
The big question now is will the new secondary be as solid as the one last season that helped Carolina rank second in the NFL in total defense?
"Communication has been fine," Harper said. "Guys are getting lined up. We've got to get to the huddle calls a little bit faster. But overall, if you look at it on tape, the defense has not played bad."