"You have to be smart about it, and you still have to recognize with your limitations on game day with the total roster and the decisions that go into the 46 guys that are active, he has to be ready to play," Payton said.
Thomas didn't play in the Saints' previous eight games while he recovered from a severely sprained left ankle. He said Wednesday that his absence has been "a terrible nightmare."
Payton said Friday that Thomas moved around well while working with the offense, as well as with the scout team and on kick returns.
Thomas was the Saints' leading rusher last season with 793 yards and six touchdowns. An effective receiver on screens and swing passes, Thomas also caught 39 passes for 302 yards and two scores. He capped his 2009 season with touchdowns on screen passes in both the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl.
This season, Thomas had 147 yards and one score on 46 rushes, along with 133 yards on 17 catches, before he suffered his injury at the end of a Week 3 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Thomas said Wednesday that his rehabilitation has been complicated by disagreement among doctors and trainers concerning how serious his injury was and whether tendons or ligaments were partially torn or just badly stretched.
About a month ago, when progress was slow, trainers advised Thomas to wear a protective walking boot and use crutches to give the ankle as much rest as possible. Thomas said his ankle responded well, and he started running again after the bye.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.