METAIRIE, La. (AP) — A necessary but potentially awkward period has begun for Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins.
The defensive leaders and starting safeties are now tutoring a first-round draft choice who could very well take one of their jobs before long.
They knew this time was coming since late last month, when New Orleans selected Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro and coach Sean Payton left little doubt that the Saints expect Vaccaro to contribute right away.
The good news, Payton said after an offseason practice on Thursday, is that Harper and Jenkins are team-first guys who can handle the challenge of both mentoring a player with whom they're also competing for playing time.
"Players' personalities really dictate how they handle young players coming in," Payton said. "Knowing Roman and Malcolm — those guys, they're team players.
"An important element when you bring in a rookie is who's in front of him," the coach added. "So when you have guys like a Roman Harper or a Malcolm Jenkins, guys that have experience but are also solid guys, I think that helps the transition."
Neither Harper nor Jenkins have criticized the Saints' decision to take a safety 15th overall and neither have said they wanted out.
Harper appears to be doing everything he can to stick around. He recently accepted a renegotiated contract that lowered his annual salary by several million dollars, but also added guaranteed bonus pay extended the length of the deal an additional year, through 2015.
Now entering his eighth season, Harper said he recalls some good advice he received from now retired former safety Darren Sharper, who played for New Orleans in 2009 and 2010.
"Sharper always told me everything comes full circle. He was my mentor in this thing and now I'm trying to do the same thing" for Vaccaro, Harper said. "Hopefully I can do as well as he did, but yeah, I'm going to teach him up and try to coach him on all the little things."
"We're definitely going to need this guy to make some plays this year and I'm going to help him do that."
Harper and Jenkins are both coming off seasons below their standards. They were part of a unit in 2012 that gave up more yards (7,042) than any defense in NFL history. Harper had two interceptions, Jenkins one. Neither had a sack, and that represented a huge drop-off for Harper, who had 7 1/2 sacks in 2011.
Harper, however, did not have many blitzing opportunities last season under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who lasted only one season in New Orleans before Payton replaced him with Rob Ryan, who is bringing back some of the pressure packages that were successful under Gregg Williams from 2009-11.
Jenkins, who is due to be a free agent after this season, said seeing his team use a top draft choice on his potential long-term replacement is "the nature of this game."
"Every year there's going to be an influx of players that come into this team, but I think all of our goal is obviously to be the best team we can be this year and that's all we can focus on. What happens after that is out of all of our control, Jenkins said. "Kenny's a hell of a player, so it just makes us that much better.
"He's a great athlete, very versatile, covers very well and he's grasping the defense — all the stuff that they've put on him — pretty quickly."
Coaches say Vaccaro has the build and speed to play either safety position as will as nickel back. Vaccaro is constructively ambiguous when asked about his potential to snag a starting job.
"I'm starting from the bottom. I'm the freshman on campus," he said. "I'm just trying to compete. Honestly I want to be the best player I can be this year and I'll let the chips fall how they fall."
He said he hasn't sensed any tension with Jenkins or Harper, noting, "They were rookies once, too. I think they understand what rookies go through."
"Roman and Malcolm have been a great influence on me," Vaccaro added. "They've been helping me learn my plays to get me lined up and I'm glad I came to a team with a great group of vets in front of me."
Notes: Payton said he had met with third-year receiver Joe Morgan about his drunk-driving arrest last weekend but declined to go into specifics about any consequences that Morgan, who practices Thursday, may face. "Each team is faced with it at some point," Payton said of players being arrested. "It is what it is in regards to the lesson you hope the players, including Joe, learn from it. It's our job to keep reinforcing the importance of being smart and making right decisions and it's something that we really try to pride ourselves in." ... Rookie left tackle Terron Armstead was given a chance to practice with the first team during Thursday's non-contact practice. Left tackle Charles Brown, who will compete for the starting job, also has returned to the field after sitting out last week's voluntary practices. ... LB Jon Vilma also returned to team drills after sitting out last Thursday.