The line has gone dead, and a series of loud beeps can be heard across the room.
There is no question it’s time to hang up on the hype. There needs to be some type of proof that last year was a fluke for the New Orleans Saints’ group of safeties. The situation is too volatile.
But it’s also important to remember that hype arrived because of a wide-spread belief that Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro could emerge as one of the better safety duos in the NFL. They had the pedigree and talent that made it easy to believe.
Unfortunately, their inaugural season together ended in disappointment.
Byrd started his tenure in New Orleans on the operating table, getting a disk repaired in his back. Then, he stumbled through the early portion of the season before being shut down with a knee injury.
Vaccaro, who was coming off an enchanted rookie season, fought through his own array of injuries and never quite appeared to be himself. There was the hamstring injury he suffered in the season opener, an injured ankle that never healed, and a pair of quad tears that finally sidelined him for the season finale.
It was a struggle to even get on the field at times last season, but Vaccaro said he felt he couldn’t take a knee because of all of the injuries in the secondary.
“We lost two safeties, so I’m not about to just go down,” Vaccaro said, referencing the injuries to Byrd and Rafael Bush. “And I had the hamstring and the quad, two tears. So it sucked. But at the same time, I’m out there, and if I’m out there and I’m playing, I got to execute.”
Byrd and Vaccaro will finally have the opportunity to execute with health on their side.
Vaccaro, who plays strong safety, took just enough time to heal this offseason before getting back to work. He needed to wash the “bad taste” out of his mouth after New Orleans finished 7-9 and he didn’t live up to his personal standards, which couldn’t be done sitting idle. He said he feels great and showed up to the offseason program visibly bulked up.
And though Byrd is still doing some maintenance on his surgically repaired knee, he’s taking part in practices and moved well during Thursday’s session.
Simply having the two players back and healthy is a big development. Because of the timing of their injuries, Vaccaro and Byrd’s time together on the field last offseason was limited, which might have led to some of the struggles early in the season. Now, assuming health moving forward, they’ll have ample opportunity to learn how to better play with one another.
“I think it is significant,” coach Sean Payton said of Byrd. “He is in good shape now and working through.”
At some point, Vaccaro and Byrd hope to get to a point where they are not just working through, but thriving together. If and when that happens, this defense should, at the very least, move out of the basement and begin to touch on the potential that created so much buzz last offseason.
Though Byrd never looked comfortable last season and struggled to live up to his All-Pro billing, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where he fails to settle in again this season. He’s too talented for that to happen.
One of the reasons he was signed was to help a defense that has historically struggled to create turnovers, an issue again last season, as the team finished with only 12 interceptions. Assuming Byrd’s instincts are still intact and he has retained the ability to take good angles to plays, he’ll find a way to get the ball in his hands this season.
When and if that happens, the impact on the field will be obvious. Byrd will hover on his side of the field, making it difficult for quarterbacks to compete passes within his quadrant, while also taking some back for the defense. His abilities will also make it easier for everyone else to play to their strengths.
Assuming there’s been no regression, Byrd’s range will make it possible for New Orleans to play with a single-high safety at times, which will free up Vaccaro to make plays in the box or blitz without having to put another safety on the field.
New Orleans had that flexibility last season, but it left the defense susceptible to some things — particularly when the team was in base defense and had to roll Vaccaro down in coverage. With Byrd and Vaccaro both on the field, it would put both players in a position to shine.
Now imagine a healthy Byrd and Keenan Lewis or Brandon Browner bracketing a receiver on one side of the field and how difficult it will be for quarterbacks to drop passes between those two players. Things should get better for this secondary. Much better.
Right now, though, the defense is simply trying to get on the same page and get a feel for how things might look with everyone on the field.
“You always want a guy who can make plays back there,” defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said of Byrd. “And he’s got that thing where, that wherever he’s been, at every level, he’s done it. We’re excited to have him back; getting a lot of these guys back now that were injured.”
The Saints can finally talk about last season — the injures, the disappointments, the hype — in the past tense. But two of the bigger reasons for that hype are still part of the present — a better present than the one that was here a year ago at this time, when the hype was birthed.
If things come together as hoped, maybe, just maybe, it’s time to buy low on this safety duo. Their stock might not ever be this low again.