Sean Payton

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton looks at papers during the team's NFL football training camp practice at the Ochsner Sports Performance Center on Airline Drive in Metairie, La. Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. (Photo by Max Becherer, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

METAIRIE, La. - If one took a Sharpie to the New Orleans Saints' opening-week flip card and marked out all the injury-related changes from the past several weeks, there'd be enough ink fumes to cause a headache.

Receiver Tre’Quan Smith (hamstring) and cornerback Ken Crawley (hamstring)? On the injured reserve before Week 1's game even began. Starting center Erik McCoy (calf) and starting left tackle Terron Armstead (elbow)? Out for several games, but not landing on the injured reserve.

Down too went linebacker Kwon Alexander, (elbow) defensive end Marcus Davenport (shoulder) and linebacker Chase Hansen (groin) — all of whom went on the injured reserve after the win over Green Bay.

And those flip card changes don't include receiver Michael Thomas (ankle), kicker Wil Lutz (core) or tight end Nick Vannett (knee) — all of whom didn't appear on the Week 1 flip card because of their injury statuses. Thomas was placed on the physically unable to perform list at the start of training camp, while Lutz and Vannett landed on the injured reserve shortly after roster cutdowns.

After the Saints' early bye week, though, the tide mostly seems to be changing for those on the injured reserve.

The Saints designated Lutz for return on Monday, then Alexander, Davenport and Smith on Tuesday, then Vannett, Crawley and Hansen on Thursday. All of them were present at practice Thursday and had varying levels of participation during the media viewing window. Then, both McCoy and Armstead were spotted at practice Thursday, working in a limited fashion, for the first time since they sustained their injuries.

"This is a tough week because there's so much going on. We have to see how it goes," coach Sean Payton said Thursday. "Keeping track of it this week is challenging for me."

Lutz, Alexander, Davenport, Smith, Vannett, Crawley and Hansen have only cleared the first hurdle of returning to practice. There's another benchmark to meet after that: being activated from injured reserve.

Those seven coming off of injured reserve are going through the re-acclimation period, meaning they don't count against the active roster yet. That limbo period can last a maximum of 21 days, so it's not for certain if any, some or all will return against Seattle on Monday night. Their individual progress during the interim period isn't public knowledge either, because players not on the active roster are not listed on the injury report.

Regardless of if they can play this week or next, merely having them back at practice and in the meeting rooms has "definitely" energized the team, quarterback Jameis Winston said.

"You can just see it in their eyes, just a sigh of relief," Winston said. "Like, 'Hey man, I'm finally out here. At least I can give myself a chance.' "

Though, not everyone is back just yet.

Thomas still has yet to be designated from return from the physically unable to return list, so he's the last question mark as far as starters go. He can return to practice as soon as he's cleared.

The Saints do still have one player left on the injured reserve who can come back at some point: running back Tony Jones Jr. The former Notre Dame back is eligible to return after Sunday's game against Seattle whenever he's healthy enough.

Then, as happens in football, a few players are dealing with new injuries stemming from the game against Washington. Three players missed practice Thursday because of injury: quarterback Taysom Hill (concussion), receiver Deonte Harris (hamstring) and running back Dwayne Washington (neck).

It's unclear as of yet what their statuses will be for Monday, and the next man up mantra carries on.

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