Let the record reflect that the plays on the ball Saints safety Jairus Byrd is famous for arrived on the scene on just the second day the three-time Pro Bowler participated in full-team drills with New Orleans.
Byrd stole the show during the Saints’ training camp practice at Sidney Theriot Stadium on Wednesday by accounting for two of four interceptions the defense produced. On one of those, in a seven-on-seven drill, he was in the end zone and snatched away a throw by Saints quarterback Drew Brees, the man with the most yards (10,339) and second-most touchdowns (82) passing in the NFL since 2012.
On the other, in a full-team drill, he resembled a centerfielder in baseball, tracking an overthrown deep pass by backup QB Luke McCown and cradling it in around the middle of the gridiron. He topped off his dominant day by jumping in front of a pass aimed toward All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham at the goal-line and swatting it away for an incompletion during red-zone work.
Perhaps not one of the 6,600+ in attendance Wednesday doubted Byrd’s ability to swarm toward footballs tossed in his general vicinity. Otherwise, why would the Saints have signed him to a six-year contract worth up to $54 million annually and guaranteeing him $28 million? Otherwise, how could he have accumulated his 22 career interceptions, the most among NFL safeties since he entered the league in 2009?
But less certain at one juncture was how long the Saints would have to wait until they saw those plays. Byrd underwent surgery in May to address a problematic disc in his back, and the procedure sidelined him through the July 24 start of the first phase of training camp in West Virginia.
He returned in a limited capacity five days later, and it wasn’t until Tuesday that he lined
up for full-team drills, after he had already missed a pair of exhibition wins at St. Louis and at home against Tennessee. While Byrd’s ramping up activities Tuesday generated buzz, his play on the field wasn’t necessarily out of the ordinary.
That decidedly changed Wednesday, when he attacked throws like the ball vulture he was in five previous seasons with the Buffalo Bills and gave the public its first taste of the marquee free agent the Saints splurged on shortly after the players market opened for business in March.
And it couldn’t come at a better time, with fewer than three days to go before the Saints travel to Indianapolis for their third exhibition this year, the closest thing they’ll get to a simulation of a regular-season game prior to their Week 1 trip to divisional rival Atlanta.
When he met with the media Tuesday, Byrd tried to temper expectations about how many snaps he may see Saturday.
“I guess it’s just the feel — I’ve got to go out and see how I feel first,” he said. “Just take right now and see where I’m at — I’ll know what I need once I get out there, see where I’m at to get a gauge.”
And it’s a point well made. Wednesday wasn’t a fully-equipped practice — players wore helmets, shorts and shoulder pads, and live contact wasn’t allowed. That obviously won’t be the case at Indianapolis.
But there’s no denying the Saints were pumped up at the early flashes Byrd delivered Wednesday night.
“It was good to have him out there,” Saints coach Sean Payton said Wednesday. “He’s someone that covers a lot of ground quickly — he’s real smart with his eyes, and he’s a veteran player that understands formations and where the ball might be going.”
Linebacker David Hawthorne added, “He’s a ball-hawk. Everybody knows that. The wisdom and the level of play he brings will definitely make us better.”