When the Saints signed prized veteran free-agent and three-time Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd from the Buffalo Bills back in March to a six-year contract worth up to $54 million annually and guaranteeing him $28 million, the idea was that his skills as a “ball-hawk” would be the perfect compliment to 2nd year strong safety Kenny Vaccaro’s hard-hitting aggressive style. Last night at Mandeville High School’s Sidney Theriot Stadium during the highly-anticipated practice before Saints fans on the New Orleans metro area’s ‘Northshore’, Byrd put those ball-hawk skills to full use — showing why his return allows the Saints defense to soar to greater heights in 2014.
That’s a huge sigh of relief for the fans of the Who Dat Nation; to know that Byrd’s return now puts Rob Ryan’s plans to build upon an impressive showing in 2013 into ‘full effect’. The addition of Byrd was expected to boost the secondary into becoming one of the League’s most talented overall units, on par with what’s considered the NFL’s top tandem in Seattle Seahawks teammates Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. Back in June I had said that I thought Byrd’s mere presence alone would make the Saints defense a Top 5 unit once again in 2014. Last night’s performance would appear to have officially confirmed my belief.
On two separate occasions last night, Byrd turned into that ball-hawk that Saints management envisioned him being when they made him the consensus top-signing of the bally-hooed veteran free agency period. In a seven-on-seven drill, he was in the end zone and snatched away a throw by Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Then on another (in a full-team drill), he did his very best Willie Mays impression (the legendary baseball Hall of Fame centerfielder known for making incredible catches over his shoulder) – as he hauled in an overthrown deep ball thrown by backup QB Luke McCown and came down with the ball to the delight of the 6, 617 Northshore faithful in attendance.
He then capped off the night by stepping in right at the very last moment and swatted away a pass intended for All-Pro TE Jimmy Graham for an incompletion in a red-zone drill, putting an end to his triumphant return to the Saints line-up. It certainly would suggest to me that Byrd is indeed recovered from the back procedure performed by doctors in May to address a problematic disc in his back — the very same procedure that kept him sidelined through the first part of training camp at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. I will say this: I would be completely stunned, if Byrd doesn’t start at free safety in Week 1 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on September 7th.
My guess would be that Saints head coach Sean Payton is certainly leaning that way, based on his comments to the assembled media after practice had concluded:
He is another guy who got his hands on a couple of balls, one of them was a really good play. That’s encouraging. It has been a step process, a little bit longer for Jairus. But it’s good to have him out there on your team. He is someone who covers a lot of ground quickly, real smart with his eyes. Tonight there were a couple of plays where the quarterbacks just commented, ‘Where’d he come from?’ He is a veteran player who understands formations and where the ball might be going.”- Saints head coach Sean Payton, after practice Wednesday Night in Mandeville
Byrd’s return to the lineup certainly couldn’t have come at a better time; as there’s been some grumbling among some Saints fans about how the secondary (excluding Vaccaro) has performed thus far in the pre-season. In just three more days, 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 that Week 1 trip to face divisional and hated arch- rival Atlanta.
Now surely it wasn’t if Byrd’s performance last night was should have been unexpected. After all, this is the very same player who intercepted 22 passes and forced 11 turnovers during his five seasons with the Buffalo Bills; earning a total of three selections to play and represent the Bills in the Pro Bowl. Byrd’s radar-like “sixth sense” ability to make interceptions and big-hit delivery is the reason why the Saints placed their $54 million dollar ‘bet’ on the marquee free-agent shortly after the players market opened for business in March. His return now almost guarantees to give the Saints’ secondary a huge boost this season, one that should make them a favorite to win the NFC in 2014.
When he met with the media Tuesday, Byrd himself tried to temper expectations about how many snaps he may see Saturday, telling reporters last night that “I guess it’s just the feel — I’ve got to go out and see how I feel first. 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.” Since the Saints only wore helmets, shorts and shoulder pads (Byrd himself was in a pair of pajama-like sweatpants), and live contact wasn’t allowed in last night’s practice, that clearly won’t be the case at Indianapolis against the Colts. The only question is how many snaps he will take. But after seeing that performance, the franchise and the Who Dat Nation definitely have to be encouraged.
“He is a ball hawk, everybody knows that,” said linebacker David Hawthorne. “And the wisdom and the level of play he brings will definitely make us better.” That’s unquestionably words that are GREAT to hear for Saints fans. It’s a reassuring feeling to be sure; and now Who Dat Nation can heave a heavy sigh of relief, now that they know that the return of the ball-hawk Byrd allows the defense to soar to greater heights………..