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.
"Now it's just looking ahead to what we have got to get accomplished, this game and the long road ahead to the season," Byrd said.
Byrd said he tried to stay as mentally sharp as possible during the summer, learning the plays and calls. But he and Payton both admitted that he'll still need to make that transition back to "football shape."
"This is an important game, because he hasn't been able to play in the first two," Payton said of Saturday's game. "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."
Byrd said he'll leave that playing time up to the coaches, but he said he feels good enough to go full speed ahead.
Byrd, who also missed the entire preseason and the first five weeks of the regular season last year in Buffalo because of plantar fasciitis in his foot, said he didn't get "down" on the process while he was sidelined. And he said it was the smart approach to take. But he admitted it's never easy.
"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.
"Now I'm just focused ahead, getting in the groove with the guys."
The hope is that Byrd will provide a missing piece to a young Saints defense that was outstanding in almost every area last year except for forcing turnovers. Byrd's 22 career interceptions rank second in the NFL over the past five years, and he has also forced 11 fumbles.