METAIRIE, La. (AP) Saints starting center Max Unger had his No. 60 jersey pulled down over shoulder pads and wore his helmet - a new look this training camp for a central figure on the offensive line that protects record setting quarterback Drew Brees, and an uplifting development for a squad that could use some good news on the injury front.
''It's awesome to see Max'' on the field in pads, right tackle Zach Strief said after Monday's practice. ''He got about 800, `Oh! Max is here!' comments today, so I think everyone's excited and I know he's feeling really good. He's been saying for a couple weeks now that he's probably a good bit ahead of where he thought he would be at this point.''
The 6-foot-5, 305-pound Unger has been on the New Orleans' physically unable to perform list since camp opened because of offseason foot surgery. He isn't participating fully in practice yet, but could be seen moving vigorously near the edge of the practice field while engaging in light contact drills. His ramping up of on-field work raises the prospects of him meeting or beating his goal of being ready to play by Week 1 of the regular season.
''There are certain positions in football where a presence makes a difference,'' veteran right tackle Zach Strief said. ''For the offensive line, it's a center.
''He's a leader for us, so when a guy comes back in and we start seeing the progression of him getting back to practice, it's exciting for everybody.''
Unger, who was not available to media on Monday, had surgery in early May to tighten up an abnormally wide space in his Lisfranc joint, after which he spent about five weeks not walking on his left foot. Unger has said the injury began to bother him in Week 13 against Detroit last season, but he and coach Sean Payton have both said that foot specialists initially concluded that surgery could be avoided with rest and rehab.
''It was one of those things where you didn't really know what was in there until they did surgery,'' Unger said in June. ''We thought it would heal on its own. It didn't. The good thing is it got done.''
Unger said in June that he hoped to return in time to play in the regular season opener on Sept. 11 - a Monday night game at Minnesota.
Payton, however, sounded optimistic on Monday that Unger could be healthy enough to play by Week 3 of the preseason, when the Saints are home against Houston on Aug 26.
''He's on schedule,'' Payton said. ''I'm pretty confident that he's going to get some preseason work in a game. He's doing well. ... I don't know if he's going to get team (snaps) this week, but he's out there now.
''He's a bright guy, tough, a great leader. He's been a great addition for this team, a great addition for the locker room and throughout the process he's been real diligent and I know he's encouraged,'' Payton continued. ''There's been a steady pace at which he's done the rehab and he's done a real good job.''
The 31-year-old Unger won a Super Bowl with Seattle in the 2013 season and was named to the 2012 and 2013 Pro Bowls. With the Seahawks, he established himself as powerful blocker in a running game that featured Marshawn Lynch. The Saints acquired Unger in 2015 as part of a trade that sent star tight end Jimmy Graham to Seattle.
Last season, Unger started 15 games for New Orleans, helping Mark Ingram to a career-best 1,043 yards rushing.
Notes: Payton sidestepped a question about whether the Saints were actively seeking a trade partner for third-year cornerback Delvin Breaux, who is currently injured and technically could not be dealt until he's healthy enough to pass a physical. Payton also stopped short of refuting a report by The Advocate that the Saints were shopping Breaux. ''We would never comment if we were, to begin with,'' Payton said. ''It's very normal throughout training camp for teams to discuss different players and possible trades.'' Breaux, who has missed more than a week's worth of practice since camp began, has a left leg injury, the precise nature of which has not been disclosed. Breaux also missed 10 games last season because of leg and shoulder injuries. ... Also not practicing Monday were WRs Ted Ginn Jr., Jake Lampman and Travin Dural; LBs Stephone Anthony and Nate Stupar; TE Clay Harbor; C Jack Allen; CB Taveze Calhoun; and DT David Onyemata. Payton usually declines to discuss injuries during camp. He also periodically rests veterans, which could have been the case with Ginn, who practiced on Sunday. ... Strief said players were inspired by guest speaker Carl Lewis, a nine-time Olympic gold medalist who spoke to players Sunday evening. One message from Lewis that resonated in particular, Strief said, was: ''Be a 24-hour athlete. If it's not contributing to your success as an athlete, don't do it. And that's not just in the building. That's outside the building, your nutrition, your sleep.''
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