METAIRIE, La. – With receiver Lance Moore, right tackle Zach Strief and Jonathan Vilma in pads and working through at least parts of practice, the New Orleans Saints are optimistic they'll have more veteran leadership on the field for an expected playoff push.
Less certain is how long it will take New Orleans' most productive pass-catcher, tight end Jimmy Graham, to return from a left foot injury.
Graham was unable to practice on Wednesday, though he did not appear seriously hurt as he walked the sideline with tape on his left foot.
"He's someone who I think is doing well," Payton said with his usual vagueness regarding injuries. "Each day, we'll just take a peek on how he's progressing and be smart."
Last week's bye came at a good time for Graham and a number of other Saints regulars. Graham hurt his foot late in the Saints' loss at New England — the only loss so far for New Orleans (5-1).
The Saints return to action at home this Sunday against Buffalo (3-4).
Moore had not practiced since hurting his hand against Arizona in the third week of the season. Strief has been hurt since a victory at Chicago in Week 5. Vilma was on the club's short-term injured reserve list. He was not eligible to practice until Monday and cannot play until Nov. 3 against the Jets, his former team, in New York.
"It was good to see JV running around out there," guard Jahri Evans said. "I got to hit him a little bit. Every time I hit him I was like, 'How're you feeling?' And he was feeling good."
While Moore could not guarantee he would play this Sunday, he said his presence at practice meant his hand was healthy enough to handle contact on the field again.
"You saw me in practice so that's a pretty good sign, a better sign than the last four weeks," Moore said.
Known for his ability to make short but crucial drive-extending catches, Moore sounded eager to play against an often-blitzing Buffalo squad that is likely to leave several Saints receivers in one-on-one coverage much of the game.
"Once you miss so much time and a game like New England — it was one of those man-to-man type games, and this week is looking like it's going to be one of those games as well — you love that moment and being able to showcase your talents," Moore said.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees said Moore's ability to get open in single coverage, especially on intermediate routes, is "a great asset to have" against a defense like Buffalo's.
Strief, recovering from a left ankle injury, was on the field for individual drills, which were open to reporters, but was listed as having missed 11-on-11 drills, which are closed.
"It's improving," Strief, who started the first five games, said of his injury. "At this point, that's what you hope for. It was a nice time for the bye week. Having that extra time will go a long way."
Vilma did not appear in the locker room while it was open to reporters on Wednesday, but said during a charity event Tuesday evening that he feels great and will be up front with the team if his troublesome knee takes a turn for the worse.
"If my knee says, 'No,' I told Sean, 'Look, I'll be honest and let you know my knee's saying, 'No mas,' and we go from there," Vilma said. "But fortunately right now ... it's not telling me that, and as long as it's not telling me that, it's 100 miles an hour."
Vilma's teammates also appeared encouraged by the 10th-year linebacker's progress.
"You'd never know he was gone," middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "One thing about JV, he always puts in a ton of work and he's always going to be ready."
Notes: Still unable to return to practice was RB Mark Ingram, whose toe injury has sidelined him since Week 2. Also missing practice were DE Cameron Jordan (ankle) S Roman Harper (knee) and DT Tyrunn Walker. CB Jabari Greer did not practice, but his absence was not injury related. ... Payton explained a roster move this week to cut OLB Martez Wilson and promote rookie third-string quarterback Ryan Griffin from the practice squad to the active roster. "No. 1, Ryan was a guy we signed as a free agent. We considered drafting him late. He came in and had a real good training camp, and so maybe a move like that gets sped up," Payton said. "Overall, it was just trying to pay attention to production and really it was as simple as that. ... I know that (Wilson will) have another opportunity, and you want to see him do well. Those are decisions that are tough often times during the season." Later, Wilson was signed claimed off of waivers by Oakland.
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