Midway through Tuesday’s practice, Mark Ingram took a handoff and attempted to take the ball through a hole. As he hit it, a member of the Saints defense hit him back.
On most days, this play wouldn’t even be recognized or talked about. But on most days Jairus Byrd, the prize of New Orleans’ free-agent class, isn’t the one delivering the hit.
“I definitely felt good to finally get that contact out the way, get back in the swing of things, adjust to this heat out here,” Byrd said. “It’s new.”
It is new. The hit on Ingram might have been the first time Byrd engaged in contact since being signed by the Saints this offseason. Byrd underwent back surgery in May and started training camp on the physically unable to perform list. He’s taken part in the non-contact portion of practice the past few weeks, but was not cleared for contact until Tuesday.
It was the last hurdle he needed to clear.
“Basically the last step was getting clearance for contact. So now you’re seeing him really with no limitations,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.
Byrd did not appear to be hindered by the downtime. He jumped back into his spot at safety, patrolling center field, and was not afraid to bark orders to the men in front of him or take on contact. By all accounts, he looks like a man who should be ready to play Saturday against the Colts in Indianapolis.
“In my mind, when he asked me if I expected to play, I’m expecting to play,” Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowler who signed a six-year, $54 million deal with the Saints, said. “My mindset is I’m going to play. The last say goes to coach Payton. I’m just preparing myself as if I’m going to play, but obviously things can change.”
Tuesday marked the first time spectators have been able to see all of the Saints safeties on the field at the same time in a contact drill. And if not for the absence of cornerback Keenan Lewis, who suffered an undisclosed injury Friday night and spent the session rehabilitating, it would have been the first time the starting secondary was on the field with Byrd and Champ Bailey.
Seeing those players together made many minds wander about how good the secondary can be once all the pieces are healthy. Byrd was among them, but he noted it takes more than talent to be successful.
“(We can) be as good as we want to be,” Byrd said. “Coach (Rob) Ryan does a good job of getting guys in positions to make plays. It’s up to us to go out and make the plays and do the things that we need to do and get the cohesiveness.
“Each person is different in what they like to do and where they like to see things and how we see things. As long as we get together and study together as a unit, we should be good.”
Though he wasn’t on the field during contact drills in recent weeks, Byrd has not been a stranger to the meeting rooms. He said he would not know how much more work he needs to do to get back into game shape until playing in one, but feels good about the mental aspect of learning a new system after spending the previous five seasons in Buffalo. As far as getting back on the field, it’s doubtful Byrd will see a large amount of snaps against the Colts.
“This is an important game, because he hasn’t been able to play in the first two,” Payton said. “Now, we’ll be smart with the reps we give him and the amount we give him, but I don’t think you can just throw the ball out there and play.”
The slow approach hasn’t been easy for Byrd, who missed the preseason and the first five games last season with Buffalo because of a foot injury. He said he didn’t get frustrated, but admitted sitting on the sideline tried his patience.
“The hardest thing was having patience, because you see everything moving ahead,” Byrd said. “Guys are practicing, running around, conditioning, hitting, doing the bulk of what football is. You know, it’s that journey.
“A lot of times coaches talk about enjoying the journey. You know, camp, no one really likes it, but it’s part of the journey. And seeing the guys, your teammates, going through that, it’s hard.”
It took some time and a lot of patience, but Byrd is finally part of that journey. If things go according to plan, it shouldn’t be long before he’s helping the Saints improve their takeaway total from last season.