Safety Jairus Byrd was the star of Wednesday night’s practice in just his second day of full-contact participation following summer back surgery. He had two interceptions (one in full-team drills, one in 7-on-7). And he also batted away a pass from Drew Brees to Jimmy Graham in the end zone.
Safety Rafael Bush and cornerback Derrius Brooks also added interceptions during full-team drills Wednesday.
It was uncanny the way Byrd lived up to his reputation as a ball-hawking turnover producer on Wednesday night. The Saints signed Byrd to a six-year, $54 million contract this offseason specifically to aid in their effort to force more turnovers. The three-time Pro Bowler had 22 interceptions during his five-year career with the Buffalo Bills, which ranks second in the NFL during that span.
“He’s someone that covers a lot of ground quickly. He’s really smart with his eyes. He’s a veteran player that understands formations and where the ball might be going,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Typically with a safety like that, it starts with the first step and anticipation. You can have great speed and ball skills, but if your anticipation is a step slow, you find yourself a step away from a play.
“Tonight there were a couple of plays where the quarterbacks just commented, ‘Where’d he come from?’”
Byrd will make his preseason debut Saturday night at the Indianapolis Colts. Bailey might also make his preseason debut at Indianapolis.
“We’ll see,” Payton said. “I think he’s making progress. One of the things we’ve talked about was tomorrow will be an important day to see how some of these guys did following tonight’s practice.”
Robinson seems more questionable for Saturday night. But obviously there’s plenty of reason for optimism that the Saints’ secondary will be at full strength by Week 1 of the regular season -- just in time for a date with Julio Jones, Roddy White and the rival Atlanta Falcons.
- It didn't take long for safety Jairus Byrd to start living up to his reputation as a ball hawk. In just his second practice doing full team drills, Byrd had two interceptions (one in full team and one in 7-on-7). He also broke up a pass from Drew Brees to Jimmy Graham in the end zone in full-team drills. "He's someone that covers a lot of ground quickly. He's really smart with his eyes. He's a veteran player that understands formations and where the ball might be going," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "Tonight there were a couple of plays where the quarterbacks just commented, 'Where'd he come from?'" Payton also reiterated that Byrd is expected to make his preseason debut Saturday night at the Indianapolis Colts.
- There was a lot of good news on the injury front Wednesday night. Cornerback Keenan Lewis and defensive end Akiem Hicks returned to full participation after being limited by injuries earlier this week. Lewis briefly had either his left foot or ankle re-taped by trainers on the sideline early in practice. Cornerback Champ Bailey participated in full-team drills for the first time since July 31. Cornerback Patrick Robinson returned on a limited basis with an undisclosed injury. Receiver Brandin Cooks remained out with a stomach virus/fever. Guard Ben Grubbs, linebackers Victor Butler and Khairi Fortt and fullback Erik Lorig were also among those who remained out with injuries.
- The Saints took their practice on the road Wednesday night across Lake Pontchartrain to Mandeville High School -- something they haven't done much during Payton's tenure. Payton and players said they loved the atmosphere, both the energy from the announced crowd of 6,617 and the retro feel of the high school surroundings. "I think there's a scent to the locker room," Payton said, adding that the team will consider holding some practices in other areas going forward.
- Other highlights from Wednesday's practice: Brees looked sharp, aside from the ball that was tipped away by Byrd. He drilled a touchdown to Robert Meachem in red zone drills and sailed a gorgeous touchdown pass to receiver Nick Toon. He even took off running for a long gain on a keeper at one point. ... Receiver Marques Colston was dipping from the same fountain of youth, making two nice grabs in team drills. ... Rookie receiver Brandon Coleman had a great night, catching a pass from Brees in team drills and later making a fantastic effort to reach for a ball and try to tap his toes in bounds in the corner of the end zone (though it was unclear if he stayed in). ... Safety Rafael Bush intercepted quarterback Ryan Griffin on a ball tipped up by tight end Benjamin Watson. Cornerback Derrius Brooks had an even more impressive one-handed pick against quarterback Logan Kilgore. ... Rookie linebacker Ronald Powell shot into the backfield for a tackle-for-loss. ... Center Tim Lelito sailed a shotgun snap over Griffin's head, but he stood out against nose tackle John Jenkins in 1-on-1 pass rush drills.
- The Saints will be back at their practice facility for a 11 a.m. CT practice on Thursday, though they moved it indoors, which means it's closed to the public.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Calvin Johnson isn't interested in surrendering any of his salary to the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell.
"I'm not letting Goodell get in my pockets," Johnson said.
Johnson's trademark celebration had been dunking the ball over the post, similar to Graham. When the NFL banned the celebration, Johnson told the Detroit Free Press: "I'm still going to dunk. I just won't touch the rim."
Now, it appears he is changing his stance.
Johnson said he and the other receivers are coming up with a post-touchdown celebration that they'll likely unveil at some point.
"We're going to come up with something as a group," Johnson said. "Golden (Tate), a couple of the guys were talking about coming up with something. You might see something from the receivers that everybody might do when we score.
"You never know. We'll see."
The first chance to possibly see it would be Friday, as Johnson is expected to make his season debut against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
I’m a little disappointed that some of the Saints’ younger, up-and-coming defensive players weren’t represented on the list (more on that later this week). But I was glad to see Colston and Grubbs got the proper respect from a panel of 90 voters throughout ESPN’s community of analysts -- considering both are pretty under-the-radar guys.
Grubbs, 30, just made his second trip to the Pro Bowl in the past three years, and he did it with two different teams (the Saints and Baltimore Ravens). So his recognition wasn’t a surprise. Like the rest of the Saints’ offensive line, Grubbs was inconsistent early in the season last year. But he finished very strong, especially during the playoffs. And the 6-foot-3, 310-pounder has shown great versatility with the power to run block and the athleticism needed to pass protect and get out in front of screen passes in New Orleans’ pass-heavy offense.
As the ESPN poll pointed out, only Larry Fitzgerald (69) and Calvin Johnson (66) have more touchdown receptions during that span.
And as I’ve written a couple times this summer, don’t rule out another one of those 1,100-yard, eight-touchdown type of seasons from Colston again now that he’s feeling healthier than he has in a couple years.
Also worth a click:
- ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando singled out three Saints among his Top 50 breakout candidates that could wind up on this list next year and beyond (requires Insider access). He ranked offensive tackle Terron Armstead at No. 8, receiver Kenny Stills at No. 23 and running back Mark Ingram at No. 39. I have no complaints with any of the guys on that list, especially Armstead, who has been generating a ton of buzz this summer. I would make an argument for receiver Brandin Cooks and defensive end Akiem Hicks, as well. … I assume from Sando’s explanation that more established veteransKeenan Lewis and Junior Galette weren’t eligible. (And second-year safety Kenny Vaccaro wasn’t eligible for a different reason that will be revealed later in the top 100).
- The Saints rank 23rd on Forbes’ list of NFL franchise values. The Saints are worth an estimated $1.1 billion, according to Forbes, thanks in part to their healthy lease agreement with the state of Louisiana. The Dallas Cowboys rank first at $3.2 billion.
Wayne, a New Orleans-area native, was among the ones who got away when Payton was recruiting the area for the University of Illinois in his final year as a college coach in 1996.
It's possible that Wayne will make his preseason debut against the Saints on Saturday night, though that hasn't been decided yet.
"He's an extremely talented player," Payton said. "I know him a little bit uniquely because I was here in Louisiana recruiting high school players for the University of Illinois, C.J. and I."
That "C.J." refers to Curtis Johnson, the current Tulane head coach and former Saints receivers coach, who had a recruiting stranglehold on the New Orleans area back in those days. Johnson helped woo Wayne and safety Ed Reed, among others, to the University of Miami. Johnson also helped lure Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk to San Diego State, where Johnson and Payton first worked together.
"We spent a better part of a week going in and out of these schools," Payton continued. "I would say we got to about 30, 35 schools. Had I been just solo with a map, I probably would have gotten to 12. But Curtis would drive in, parking lot, back door, in a gymnasium, right to the coach, where normally you might go to the front desk and get a pass and go through all the correct steps. But that year, Reggie Wayne was coming out, that year Ed Reed was coming out. There was another good player coming out of St. Augustine High School, I think a defensive tackle, I can't think of his name. There were a handful of good players coming out. So I remember his recruitment, I remember hearing what I heard from Curtis and then over the years followed him.
"Look, he is very competitive. He's the type of player that could do that, that could recover from an injury like that. And he has had a great career."
I asked Payton if he ever beat out Johnson for a New Orleans-area prospect.
"Not while he was at Miami. No," said Payton, who remains close with Johnson and the Tulane program. "Every year there is great talent (in the New Orleans area). And one of the things he is doing so well at Tulane is identifying, recruiting, and those guys are winning their battles. It starts with the procurement of talent. He is very good at that."
- The Saints got some good news on the injury front Tuesday when safety Jairus Byrd was cleared to do full-contact work. But there were still a handful of key players missing. Cornerback Keenan Lewis was held out of practice, though he did some exercises off to the side with trainers. Guard Ben Grubbs was absent after leaving with an undisclosed injury during Monday’s practice. Receiver Brandin Cooks was absent for the second straight day with a stomach virus (coach Sean Payton said he still had a fever). Cornerback Patrick Robinson, linebackers Victor Butler and Khairi Fortt and fullback Erik Lorig were also among a group of players who remained sidelined with unspecified injuries. Defensive end Akiem Hicks and cornerback Champ Bailey participated in a walk-through but didn’t do any team drills.
- Veteran defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick replaced Hicks with the starting defense – another sign of Deaderick’s versatility and possible value to the Saints. The 6-foot-4, 305-pounder spent most of the summer lining up as the Saints’ second-string nose tackle while John Jenkins recovered from a pectoral surgery, and that’s where Deaderick was lined up when he recovered a fumble in last Friday’s preseason game against the Tennessee Titans. Deaderick, 27, spent his first three seasons with the New England Patriots and one year with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He’s right on the roster bubble, but he’s making a strong case.
- Speaking of that roster bubble, another undrafted rookie that belongs on your radar is outside linebacker Kasim Edebali, a German native who played at Boston College. The main reason I haven’t touted Edebali much when I do my weekly 53-man roster projections is because I feel like that position is so overcrowded that it will be tough to crack. But the 6-2, 253-pounder has flashed some impressive athleticism and pass-rush ability at times. Saints analyst Bobby Hebert was just touting Edebali on Monday. Then on Tuesday, Edebali got a ringing endorsement from fellow former undrafted linebacker Junior Galette. When asked if he’s been impressed by any undrafted guys, Galette said, “One guy I’d point out, Kasim Edebali. You know he’s not really a rookie, I feel like. He’s up there in age, 25 years old [as of Sunday]. He’s a lot more mature than I was as a rookie. And the guy gets off the ball and he can play.”
- Some of the on-field highlights Tuesday: Rookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste went up high to break up a pass from Drew Brees to Marques Colston in the end zone, one of Jean-Baptiste’s best efforts to date. … Cornerback Corey White forced a fumble against running back Khiry Robinson in seven-on-seven drills, one of White’s many nice plays in camp. … Tight end Jimmy Graham continued to serve as a go-to target in Tuesday’s practice, continuing a stellar camp. And after Graham scored a TD on Tuesday, he celebrated with an emphatic (and legal) spike. … Brees kept the ball to himself, tucking it and running it in for a score to cap a red zone drill at the end of practice.
- The Saints will take their practice show on the road Wednesday night for a rare practice across the lake at Mandeville High School. The session, from 7-9 p.m. CT, will be free and open to the public, weather permitting. Payton said the team will be in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts instead of a fully-padded session.
It’s still unknown when or if Lorig is expected back this season. But coach Sean Payton said the team will prepare as if he’s not going to be ready for Week 1, with Jones and third-year pro Austin Johnson competing to serve as Lorig’s replacement.
"Our preparation's got to be with the idea that, as Erik's rehabbing, we've got to be ready to have a fullback Week 1, with the chance it's not going to be Erik," Payton said. "And so both of those guys are competing.
“Greg’s a veteran player. Austin's been with us now for the better part of a year and a half. And so I think, No. 1, Austin's had a good camp. Greg's been here for two weeks. Both of them will play a lot again this weekend [Saturday night at Indianapolis].”
Payton later added that Johnson is “doing real well.” The 6-foot-2, 240-pounder spent most of last season on the Saints’ practice squad after signing with the team in January 2013. Johnson was actually a linebacker in college at Tennessee, and he signed with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent in 2012. But he didn’t find a permanent home that season.
Johnson has shown potential as a blocker and receiver out of the backfield, and he could also be used on special teams.
Meanwhile Jones, 33, is a 10-year veteran who spent last season with the Houston Texans and his first nine years with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The 6-1, 251-pounder has primarily served as a lead blocker in 131 career games played. He also has a total of 272 carries for 913 yards and 10 touchdowns in his career, plus 73 receptions for 471 yards and three touchdowns.
Last season, Jones played in all 16 games for the Texans with five starts, with a total of two rushes for 2 yards and five receptions for 34 yards.
The Saints could also use their tight ends as fullbacks in certain situations. Second-year tight end Josh Hill has made some cameos in that role.
METAIRIE, La. -- Safety Jairus Byrd went through full-contact team drills for the first time as a member of the New Orleans Saints on Tuesday, and he's expected to make his preseason debut Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts.
Although Byrd has been practicing on a limited basis for the past three weeks, this latest step was the best sign yet that he'll be back to 100 percent in time for the regular season after undergoing back surgery in May.
"Basically the last step was getting clearance for contact. So now you're seeing him really with no limitations," Saints coach Sean Payton said of the team's prized free-agent pickup.
Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowler with the Buffalo Bills, signed a six-year, $54 million contract with New Orleans on the first day of free agency.
He and the Saints later decided for him to have a relatively minor back surgery to address a nagging disk issue. They said they wouldn't have had surgery if it was during the regular season, but they were confident that they had enough time for him to make a full recovery.
It didn't take long for Byrd to put a good pop on running back Mark Ingram during Tuesday's practice. Byrd said afterward that the hit -- and the entire practice -- felt good.
"It definitely felt good to finally get that contact out of the way, and just getting back in the swing of things now -- and adjusting to this heat out here is new," said Byrd, who had the misfortune of returning on the most sweltering day of practice to date, now that the Saints are back home in Metairie.
But it’s Morgan’s more underrated strong suit that gives him the best chance of being active on game days – his blocking.
Blocking ability will be a huge deciding factor in the intriguing three-way battle between Morgan, Robert Meachem and Nick Toon for the Saints No. 4 receiving job. And in my mind, that gives both Morgan and Meachem a big advantage because they’ve proven to be excellent blockers in the past.
Meachem has thrived in that role for years. But Morgan took it over that in 2012 when Meachem left for the San Diego Chargers.
Then when Morgan suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp last year, the Saints wasted little time re-signing Meachem after he got released by the Chargers. And they inserted him right back into that role (ahead of Toon).
This is really the first summer where both Morgan and Meachem are competing against each other for that same role, and it’s still too close to call.
“I don’t know. I think we’re both great blockers,” the 6-foot-1, 184-pound Morgan said when asked who’s the best blocker. “He’s a little bit bigger than I am [6-2, 215], so he can probably bock some of the bigger guys better than I would. But I’m still not gonna say he’s a better blocker than me. And I won’t put myself above him. We both work hard, and we love doing it.”
Morgan’s big-play ability during that 2012 season is obviously what put him on the map. He caught 10 passes for 379 yards and three touchdowns (a whopping 37.9-yard average).
But Morgan said he thinks it was his blocking ability that “got me on the field first, before anything else.”
“I actually pride myself in blocking, because throughout my career, like when I was in high school we had two running backs that had 2,500 yards, we didn’t throw the ball much at all. Then when I got to college, we ran the ball probably 75, 80 percent of the time,” Morgan said. “So where I’ve come from, in order to get on the field, you had to be a blocker.
“And here, even though we throw the ball a lot, it was what got me on the field first of all. I was in our 22, 22-Z packages. And I made the most out of that opportunity and [it] opened the door for more opportunities.”
I’m certainly not ruling Toon out of the conversation to crack the Saints’ 53-man roster or to be active on game days. I think the Saints still like his long-term potential enough to keep him around, regardless. And he has been the Saints’ most consistent pass-catcher of the threesome throughout training camp.
But Toon has shown more inconsistency than the other two as a blocker, and I think he’ll need to prove he can be an asset in that role if he wants to crack the lineup.
Coach Sean Payton didn’t specifically agree with the idea that the No. 4 receiver job will come down to which receiver is the best blocker. But he said blocking in general has been a huge point of emphasis among the receivers.
“No. 1, I think we need to be better as a unit overall in blocking ... if we’re going to run the ball more effectively and more efficiently,” said Payton, who also pointed out that undrafted rookie receiver Brandon Coleman had some nice blocks in Friday night’s preseason game against the Tennessee Titans. “For receivers in there, it’s part of the job description. ... It’s equally important as running, stretching the defense or running the correct route.”
These aren't exactly revelations to Alabama Crimson Tide fans. Don't forget, it was a 69-yard screen pass against the Florida Gators in the 2009 SEC title game that helped secure the Heisman Trophy for Ingram that year.
But it's not a quality that Ingram was able to show off much during his first three seasons with the Saints, because he was mostly pigeonholed into a short-yardage/base-package role with better pass-catchers Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas also on the roster.
Sure enough, for the first time in his NFL career, Ingram caught a touchdown pass in Friday's preseason game against the Tennessee Titans. It was a 23-yard, blitz-busting dump-off pass, and Ingram flashed some nifty moves while making a couple of guys miss on his way to the end zone.
Ingram also stayed on the field with the nickel offense throughout a two-minute drill simulation in Monday's practice, catching two balls from Drew Brees on the drive.
"I haven't caught a lot of passes in the NFL, but in high school I played receiver. If you look at my recruiting thing, it says 'athlete,'" Ingram said proudly. "And in college, I caught a lot of passes. I haven't done it a lot here, but I've always been confident in my ability to contribute out of the backfield running routes, line up out wide running routes. I'm comfortable doing all of that."
Ingram proudly confirmed that he has some of those receiver traits in his genes, since his father Mark was a standout wide receiver for the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins.
"Of course. My dad played receiver. So that was one of the first things; running routes and catching footballs was one of the first things I did when I was young," Ingram said.
I still think Thomas will be the Saints' primary third-down back this season. Thomas is their best pass-catcher (a career-high 77 receptions last year). Just as important, Thomas is the Saints' best pass-protector. He was on the field for most of the third downs with the first-string offense during Friday's game against the Titans, catching three passes for 27 yards.
But Ingram's recent performances have been further signs that he will finally be able to play a more versatile role in the Saints' offense this season.
We saw glimpses of that during the 2013 playoffs, when Thomas was out with an injury. Ingram got to play in more three-receiver and one-back sets, and he took full advantage in a playoff win over the Eagles, with 18 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown plus a career-high three catches for 17 yards.
Ingram has made no secret about how much he is looking forward to the opportunity to keep expanding his role.
"I hope so. I want to do everything. I want to be involved in the pass game, run game, picking up pass pro. I want to be the most versatile player I can be," he said. "The majority of the time, if you just watch the film, most of the teams think when I'm in the game it's either gonna be a run or play-action or something like that. But ... we had Sproles, Pierre, a lot of receiving targets. I'm just trying to welcome that role and prove that I can do it.
"I know I'm an all-purpose back, a complete back. I can do everything."
Ingram didn't say that last part with any kind of off-putting arrogance.
In fact, I've always been impressed by how much of a team player Ingram has been in New Orleans, never publicly complaining while playing a bit part in a time-share at running back, even when he struggled at times in that short-yardage role.
At the same time, Ingram's confidence has never wavered. As he said recently, it's still his goal to be the "best back to ever play the freakin' game of football."
- The defense got the better of the offense during a simulated two-minute drill at the end of Monday's practice -- always among the most spirited competitions in camp. Quarterback Drew Brees looked sharp for a while, moving the first-string offense from one 20-yard line to the other. Brees hit tight end Jimmy Graham for four completions, including a perfect pitch-and-catch tucked between a linebacker and safety. And Mark Ingram was an asset as a receiver out of the backfield during the drive. But then the drive stalled as time started to run out, with a spike, an incomplete shot toward Kenny Stills in the end zone, a would-be sack by blitzing safety Kenny Vaccaro (if they were live tackling) and an incomplete fade pass toward Marques Colston in the end zone. Brees loudly grunted his disgust after the missed opportunity. ... Ryan Griffin led the second-string offense, but they weren't able to cross midfield, thanks to a pass break-up by safety Vinnie Sunseri and two would-be sacks on third and fourth down. Griffin's fourth-down pass, which was nullified, was also intercepted by safety Pierre Warren for good measure.
- I left Warren off my projected 53-man roster this morning. But the undrafted rookie continues to make plays and make an awfully strong case for himself. Warren also had a nice pass break-up earlier in full-team drills. The problem is that I've still got Warren ranked sixth among the safeties on New Orleans' depth chart, with newcomers Sunseri and Marcus Ball also playing so well in recent weeks. Ball also had a would-be sack on a blitz during team drills Monday.
- Speaking of undrafted rookies on the roster bubble, receiver Brandon Coleman had a great practice, continuing his roller-coaster summer with the Saints. Coleman made several nice catches, even working in with the first string at times. His best effort was when he went up high to snag a pass over cornerback Brian Dixon. I still think Coleman is more likely headed to the practice squad than the roster, but his unique size and skill set make him worth watching. Payton took note of Coleman's performance, saying he made four or five nice catches, which was “encouraging.” Payton also complimented Coleman's blocking performance in Friday's preseason game.
- Another receiver who looked sharp Monday was Colston. He had at least two nice catches -- including a gorgeous throw from Brees over cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste during team drills. Colston sat out last Friday's preseason game for an undisclosed reason, but his health certainly hasn't looked like an issue over the past two days.
- The Saints had to head indoors Monday because of rain and lightning -- to the chagrin of the fans, since indoor practices are closed to the public. They'll try again Tuesday, with an outdoor practice scheduled from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., open to the public weather-permitting.