Tight end Jimmy Graham, who remains unsigned after the Saints put a franchise tag on him, tweeted a picture of himself flexing his arms Thursday in a charity sailboat race near Manhattan, N.Y. with the caption “Suns out, Guns Out.” Graham’s team, sponsored by Hugo Boss, won the race and $10,000 for the charity Angel Flight, which transports sick children to other cities for better health care.
The NFLPA filed a grievance against the Saints for designating Graham as a tight end rather than a wide receiver, which pays $12.312 million rather than the $7.035 million for a tight end.
Brees said he remained unconcerned about Graham.
“I know that he’ll be ready when it’s time to come in,” Brees said. “I’m confident that he will be just fine when he gets here.”
Butler glad to be back after missing 2013 season with injury
Victor Butler’s 2013 season went black when he tore his ACL during the Saints’ last organized team activity in July, but he was as colorful as ever after completing the first three-day OTA session of 2014.
Butler, an outside linebacker who followed former Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryanto New Orleans as a free agent a year ago, admitted his time away from football was miserable.
“I’m just happy to be out there with a helmet playing football again,” he said. “Missing a whole year was heartbreaking. It’s like an alcoholic not being able to drink, a fish out of water. I was feeling horrible.”
The Saints still finished fourth in the NFL in total defense last year, a dramatic improvement from 2012, when they set a record for most yards allowed. The question now is what role Butler will have for a unit that played well without him. Outside linebacker Junior Galette had a career year with 12 sacks. Parys Haralson added 30 tackles and 3½ sacks.
“My role is to get out there and make this defense even better, whether that’s coming off the bench or coming out the tunnel first,” Butler said. “You get out there in OTAs and minicamps and training camp and let your play do the talking for you.”
After predicting the Saints would go from worst to first in defense last summer, Butler said he felt vindicated by their performance, even if he was not a part of it.
“Last year wasn’t even really a prediction,” he said. “Just like when you go outside and you know the sky is blue, when you get in this locker room and you look at these guys, I knew they were going to be a top 10 defense. Period. I feel like we’re going to be even better this year.”
Saints coach Sean Payton said safety Jairus Byrd was undergoing surgery on his back to address a problematic disc Thursday and isn’t expected to return until training camp begins in late July.
Byrd signed a six-year free-agent deal in March worth up to $56 million.
Payton said Byrd had dealt with the back issue previously and that it came up during weightlifting this offseason. He added it was “asymptomatic” and was not causing any pain. A specialist in Los Angeles checked it and suggested it was a potential option.
“Our guess is we’ll be very cautious and hopefully get him back here, and then he’ll start up training camp with no problem,” Payton said.
Byrd’s 22 interceptions since he entered the league in 2009 as a second-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills are the most among NFL safeties and the second most for all players.
Veteran safety Champ Bailey, a free agent signee entering his 16th season, made his presence felt right away during an 11-on-11 drill. First, he leaped to break up a pass to receiver Andy Tanner along the sideline. Then, he deflected a Luke McCown throw to Kenny Stills on a slant right to outside linebacker Kyle Knox for an easy interception.
“It’s a different scheme and a different language,” said Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection. “But I’m always optimistic about what I’m going to do.”
Bailey missed 11 games with a foot injury last season in Denver, finishing with zero interceptions for the first time in his career.
“He looks fantastic,” Ryan said. “You look out there, and you think he’s just one of these young guys running around. He’s bringing excitement to our defense and knowledge. It’s awesome to add a great player like him.”
Morgan not all the way back
Wide receiver Joseph Morgan, coming off a season-ending ACL tear in training camp last August, did little more than stretch Thursday. After sitting out during the early team portions, he headed to the locker room with a trainer about halfway through the workout.
Morgan, who averaged 37.9 yards on his 10 catches in 2012 as a second-year undrafted player out of tiny Walsh University in Canton, Ohio., faces increased competition for a roster spot this year. The Saints drafted Brandin Cooks in the first round. Stills is coming off a solid rookie season. New Orleans also re-signed veteran Robert Meachem, who caught 16 passes for 324 yards last season.
“With the expectations we had for him going into last season, it was just a downer,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “He had worked so hard to put himself in that position. Now all of a sudden you have to revert your mindset to how can I come back and be better than I was before. It’s easy to get frustrated and feel overwhelmed.”
Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro, who impressed as a rookie in 2013 but suffered a fractured ankle late in the year, participated fully in Thursday’s practice. ... Other absences from Thursday’s practice were nose tackle John Jenkins, a third-round draft pick last year, and defensive end Tyrunn Walker. Jenkins left during warm-ups. Walker was on the edge of the field with his helmet off, working with a trainer. Payton said he would not address the injury status of anyone but Byrd. … How big news is anything the Saints do? The unofficial count was 50 media members at Thursday’s OTA. OTAs resume June 3.