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Saints' Jairus Byrd taking baby steps back from injury

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Safety Jairus Byrd made a brief appearance on the New Orleans Saints' practice fields Thursday morning, jogging and doing footwork drills off to the side with trainers while wearing sweats.

It wasn't much, but it was a small sign of progress for Byrd, who's unspecified injury has arguably been the most disappointing development in Saints camp.

Byrd participated in most of the Saints' OTAs and minicamp this summer after recovering from the knee injury that landed him on injured reserve last October. But then he wound up back on the physically unable to perform list at the start of training camp.

Byrd has occasionally appeared on the field during walk-throughs, standing behind the defense to take mental reps. But Thursday's activity was the most extensive we've seen from him so far during an open practice session.

The Saints aren't required to give out injury information this time of year, and Payton has declined to offer any specifics other than to say he expects Byrd back "sooner than later."

"He's on schedule," Payton added Thursday. "There's a progression to it. Land-based movements, walk-throughs. ... Fortunately there haven't been any setbacks, and I think that's encouraging."

Normally, there wouldn't be too much cause for concern with a veteran missing the first couple of weeks of training camp. But the memory of Byrd's injury-plagued 2014 season hangs over this situation like a black cloud.

Byrd, who signed a six-year, $54 million contract in free agency last year, missed all of last year's OTAs and minicamp and part of training camp because of back surgery. He later admitted how much that affected the overall chemistry of the secondary, which was plagued by assignment errors, alignment errors and missed tackles early in the season.

Now the Saints are intent on improving that chemistry. They've simplified their scheme under coordinator Rob Ryan, added veteran assistant coach Dennis Allen to help groom the secondary and added veteran cornerback Brandon Browner to help shape their physical identity.

But they're also counting on a big bounce-back from Byrd, who had 22 interceptions and went to three Pro Bowls during his first five seasons with the Buffalo Bills.

Fortunately for the Saints, Byrd was around when the team began installing the defense during OTAs and minicamp. But Allen stressed the value of having him back as soon as possible.

"I'll be honest with you, I really haven't had a lot of experience with Jairus," said Allen, who said it was "kind of a tough question" when asked what the Saints are missing without Byrd on the field.

"You wish he was out here because you like his experience, you like his nose for the football," Allen said. "But at the same time, I've been really impressed with what we've seen out of [veteran backup] Rafael Bush. So that's been great experience for him to get that work.

"Obviously we want to get Jairus out here as fast as possible. But yet the main goal is to make sure that we've got him healthy and ready to go for a 16-game season. Now, the good news is we don't start the regular season for another month, so we've got some time. But obviously we want to get him out here and get some work."

Among some of the Saints' other injury developments Thursday:

  • Undrafted rookie tight end Jack Tabb went down in obvious pain after landing hard following a play in the end zone. Trainers attended to him for several minutes, appearing to focus on the knee area, before he was carted off.

  • Left tackle Terron Armstead and linebackers Anthony Spencer and Dannell Ellerbe were back in pads, but they were held out of team drills. Payton suggested that Armstead will be back soon. Payton also indicated that cornerback Keenan Lewis could be back as early as Friday. Lewis watched from the sideline without pads Thursday but participated in the afternoon walk-through.

  • Receiver Brandon Coleman was absent from the morning practice for the second straight day but watched from the side during afternoon walk-through. Tight end Josh Hill didn't practice but participated in the walk-through. That puts both of the young rising pass-catchers in danger of missing Friday's scrimmage.

  • Defensive end Akiem Hicks was absent from the afternoon walk-through. It's unclear if he suffered an injury.