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Byrd eager to test back, mesh with Saints defense

MANDEVILLE, La. (AP) Saints safety Jairus Byrd has rarely been so eager to hit and be hit, if only to reassure himself that his surgically repaired back is a healed as doctors believe.

Byrd, the top free agent acquisition by New Orleans this past offseason, was cleared for contact this week, allowing him to practice at full speed and with no limitations for the first time since signing a six-year, $56 million contract in March.

His first significant collision in a black-and-gold jersey occurred Tuesday, when he lowered his shoulder into running back Mark Ingram. The popping of their pads reverberated across the field, and Byrd appeared pumped up.

Now his goal is to play his first preseason game Saturday night at Indianapolis.

''Yes, it felt good,'' Byrd said of his first hit in practice. ''I feel good, thank God.''

Saints coach Sean Payton said coaches are eager to see Byrd on the field in a game situation this weekend.

''We want to get him functioning with the defense and get him up to speed,'' Payton said. ''He is pretty sharp, so I think mentally he has been on top of everything with meetings ... but now (his clearance for contact) gives him the ability to play.''

Byrd said it was hard to be patient while he watched teammates run 11-on-11 drills without him, but stressed that the Saints medical and training staff approached his rehabilitation with an abundance of caution.

''They wanted to make sure and take it slow,'' he said. ''They cleared me to go, so I'm just working my way back, getting used to everything, still going out there getting the contact in, doing things I need to do to make sure I'm ready by Week 1.''

Byrd is expected to replace Malcolm Jenkins, a versatile free safety who started for New Orleans the past four seasons and then left for Philadelphia in free agency.

The Saints did not compete for Jenkins' services on the open market this past winter because they had their sights set on Byrd, a five-year pro who has 22 career interceptions and is coming off his third Pro Bowl.

The Saints viewed the move to bring in Byrd as an important one because they're looking to produce more turnovers. Last season, the Saints' defense ranked fourth in yards allowed in coordinator Rob Ryan's first year, but also produced the fourth-fewest turnovers (19) and tied for the eighth-fewest interceptions (12).

During Wednesday night's practice at Mandeville High School, Byrd intercepted a pass in the end zone during seven-on-seven drills and intercepted another pass in 11-on-11 drills, when he also broke up a Drew Brees pass intended for tight end Jimmy Graham.

Byrd said he wants to play a central role in Ryan's scheme, which routinely employs three safeties instead of the traditional two, with the third safety replacing a linebacker.

Byrd first became familiar with the three-safety alignment in Buffalo under former Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, now the head coach in Cleveland.

''Obviously, it is very successful,'' Byrd said. ''You get a different body type in the linebacker position who can do a lot more, from covering or blitzing ... and it confuses quarterbacks.''

When he wasn't able to participate fully in Saints practice, Byrd was studying the scheme and getting to know his teammates in hopes of having a minimal mental adjustment once he was back on the field. So far, he likes what he sees of Ryan's scheme and the personnel the Saints have to run it.

''Coach Ryan does a great job of getting guys in position to make plays. It's up to us to go out and make the plays and do things we need to do and get the cohesiveness,'' Byrd said. ''Each person's different in what they like to do, where they like to see things. ... So as long as we get together and study together as a unit, we can be as good as we want to be.''

Notes: In a move aimed at fan outreach, the Saints scheduled Wednesday's training camp practice at night at Mandeville High School, located in heavily populated suburbs on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. All of the grandstands were full and fans also stood around the perimeter of the field. The Saints said attendance was 6,617. ... Although Wednesday night's practice did not include full contact, CB Champ Bailey participated in 11-on-11 drills for the first time since July 31. Bailey and fellow CB Keenan Lewis, who'd missed practice a day earlier, took part on some of the same snaps, lined up on opposite sides of the field. ... CB Patrick Robinson returned to practice on a limited basis. ... Those missing practice included WR Brandin Cooks (illness), FB Erik Lorig, LG Ben Grubbs and OLB Victor Butler.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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