NFL

Saints make key moves as players report for camp

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METAIRIE, La. (AP)

The New Orleans Saints needed a less than a day to replace Reggie Bush with another versatile running back who knows a thing or two about making defenders miss in the open field.

Free agent Darren Sproles agreed Thursday night to a four-year contract with New Orleans, which will be his second NFL team.

"I'm a Saint now!" Sproles said in an email to The Associated Press. "Can't wait to get started."

He said he didn't have flight details nailed down yet but hoped to arrive in New Orleans by Friday night.

The 5-foot-6 Sproles has spent his first six NFL season with the San Diego Chargers. He has two career touchdowns on kickoff returns and two scores on punt returns. In each of his seasons except 2006, when he was injured, he has surpassed 1,000 yards on kick returns.

The move reunited Sproles with Drew Brees, who was San Diego's quarterback when Sproles was a Chargers rookie in 2005.

Before the agreement was complete, Saints coach Sean Payton acknowledged Sproles might be a good fit following Bush's trade to Miami on Thursday morning.

Payton called Sproles "an exceptional talent," adding, "He is very versatile and dynamic."

The Bush trade gave the Saints financial flexibility. By the time players reported to the club's suburban New Orleans headquarters, the Saints had secured new contracts with several veteran free agents who were with the squad last season, including left tackle Jermon Bushrod.

"I love Bushrod. That entire offensive line. I think continuity is so important when you look at the offensive line as a unit," Brees said. "As I look around the league, the offenses that really are at the top of the league are the ones that year in, year out, consistently have that group up front that they stay together."

Payton said the club also agreed to terms with starting linebacker Scott Shanle, reserve linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, reserve cornerback Leigh Torrence and reserve safety Chris Reis, who also has been a special teams leader.

In addition, the Saints signed three of their six draft picks: cornerback Johnny Patrick, defensive end Greg Romeus and linebacker Nate Bussey.

The draft picks still unsigned Thursday evening were linebacker Martez Wilson and the Saints' two first-round picks, defensive end Cam Jordan and running back Mark Ingram.

Otherwise, Payton said everyone who was supposed to report did. He added, however, that questions remained about who would be healthy enough to practice right away.

Payton said running back Chris Ivory and starting cornerback Tracy Porter would be out at the start of camp.

Ivory broke his left foot in the last regular-season game of 2010.

"I'd be guessing if I tried to put a timeframe on it," Payton said of Ivory. "So I think he's got at least a couple weeks here, but he's getting better and his rehab has gone well."

Porter is recovering from offseason surgery on his left knee.

Running back Pierre Thomas, who had surgery on his left ankle at the end of last season, passed the physical and will practice, but Payton said he would monitor his snaps.

Payton said several players failed physicals - although he refused to name all of them - but stressed he was generally pleased with his players' conditioning and credited Brees and defensive captain Jon Vilma for hosting offseason training sessions with teammates at Tulane that mirrored what the Saints would have done had there been no lockout.

Training camp promises to be an unusual one for the Saints, who had 47 players under contract when the nearly five-month NFL lockout ended and loaded up on 21 undrafted rookies in the past few days so they'd have enough players to practice.

"We get back and have about 20, 30 new faces that I haven't seen before," Vilma said. "I never got a chance to see them in (offseason workouts) or minicamp. I really don't know anything about them. I don't know their names, if they can play ball or not, so this situation is different."

One of the new faces is former Seattle linebacker Will Herring, who agreed to a free-agent deal on Wednesday. Although the Saints have yet to confirm the addition, Herring's agent, George Mivrakes, said his client received a three-year deal worth $6.5 million.

Vilma said the Saints can at least take solace in the fact that they have most of their veteran core back and the same coaches, and should be as capable as any team of getting ready to play at a high level by the first week of the regular season.

With the re-signing of Bushrod, New Orleans has a decent chance to have its entire starting offensive line back. A person familiar with Bushrod's contract told The Associated Press it's worth $9.8 million over two years. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the Saints did not release financial terms.

The two remaining unsigned starting offensive linemen were veteran center Jonathan Goodwin and restricted free agent guard Carl Nicks.

Brees said he expects the offense to thrive despite the departure of Bush, whose Saints contract would have paid him $11.8 million this season.

"It doesn't stop anything that we do offensively," Brees said. "He did create a matchup problem with anyone who was covering him, so that element was probably one of Reggie's strengths, but it still doesn't stop our ability to be very diverse with our formations and our personnel groups."

The Saints were set to practice on Friday and Saturday without pads, although veterans who reached free-agent contracts would not be allowed to take the field until the middle of next week, after the league's new collective bargaining agreement has been ratified.

Payton said that meant a lot of rookies would be getting snaps early on, so coaches would have to be methodical in terms of introducing various offensive and defensive schemes.

"We've got to do a great job with managing our time and our snaps at practice. We've got to do a very good job of managing potential early injuries," Payton said. "We just have to manage it maybe a little differently than we have in years past. It's a unique year."

Tagged: Saints, Seahawks, Chargers, Drew Brees, Darren Sproles, Reggie Bush, Will Herring, Jermon Bushrod

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