Sunday, the New Orleans Saints suited up in pads for the first time this training camp, and cornerback Champ Bailey wasted no time proving why Saints fans should be excited he’s wearing black and gold this year instead of a Broncos uniform.
In a dazzling play, Bailey stripped the ball from fullback Erik Lorig and then caught it after Rafael Bush swatted it back Bailey’s way.
"I kind of take it personally when a guy sticks his hands in my face. He tried to stiff-arm me," Bailey said of Lorig. "I’m going to hurt him. I don’t know why he did that. I just had to make him pay somehow so the best way is getting the ball from him. Bush, I was not expecting that from him. I didn’t see him coming. All of a sudden the ball is back in my face again, I just got my head up and caught it and then we got the turnover."
It’s precisely the type of opportunistic play the Saints defense needs to produce more of in order to accomplish its goals this season.
"It is something we’re making a big emphasis of," Coach Sean Payton said. "Creating turnovers is one of the most important statistics or one of the most important points for us as a team. If you start a game with the idea that each team is going to get somewhere in between 10 to 14 possessions, and all of a sudden there is a turnover, it is really doubled because it adds a possession to the other team and takes one away. It is something that we are emphasizing."
It’s also something Bailey has excelled at during his NFL tenure. The 36-year-old ball hawk is going into his 16th season and has 12 Pro Bowl appearances, the most for any cornerback.
"One thing about corner is, you have to be a technician," Bailey said. "If you’re not on top of your technique, you will have problems; especially for me being the age I am now, I have to be on top of that. If you learn that as a young player, it’ll help you throughout your career."
The Saints inked Bailey to a two-year, $7-million deal, but his exact place on the roster isn’t clear. Keenan Lewis will be a starter, so this training camp will determine who replaces Jabari Greer.
The positive news is that the Saints have a lot of depth here competing for the job: Bailey, this year’s second-round draft pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste and familiar faces from last season like Corey White, Patrick Robinson and Rod Sweeting.
Clearly Bailey is gunning to play alongside Lewis, as evidenced by Sunday’s strip. One factor though is health: Bailey injured his foot last year in the preseason and that led to the worst season of his career. Bailey says that’s all behind him.
"I feel great," Bailey said. "Everything else is in place, I just have to keep it that way."
Despite the competition, Bailey says he’ll embrace his role as mentor to younger counterparts, which some critics have speculated might be his largest duty as a Saint. Bailey blows off that idea, but quickly adds the footnote that his colleagues should come ready to compete.
"I don’t really care about what anybody says outside this locker room. It doesn’t bother me whatsoever," Bailey said. "I will be a mentor to a lot of these guys. That’s a fact. I am definitely a part of this team. I am out here competing to get a spot on this roster as well. I do what I can to help them, but I am also out here to prepare to win this job."
The Washington Redskins took Bailey in the first round of the 1999 draft with the seventh pick. Before departing to Denver, Bailey worked and learned under Deion Sanders and Darrell Green. He has no problem balancing a fierce competition with the role of teacher.
"Every player wants to get out here and compete and see where their game is and where they can and can’t improve," Bailey said. "It is all about finding yourself and getting comfortable in what you do."
Patrick Robinson, a 2010 first-round pick for the Saints who’s still waiting for his breakout season, is tapping into Bailey’s knowledge.
"He asks me about his footwork or where your eyes should be, things like that," Bailey said. "Those are the things that make a difference between a good corner and a great one. I just want to help him get that status."
So far, Robinson and Bailey both have been practicing with the first team, alternating reps, with Jean-Baptiste waiting in the wings. The battle for starting honors will be a fun one to watch over the next few weeks.