METAIRIE - It was a long time coming, but an offseason unlike any other in NFL history finally ended for the New Orleans Saints on Thursday when they reported to training camp.
Hours after the Saints dealt running back Reggie Bush to the Miami Dolphins for an undisclosed 2012 draft pick and safety Jonathon Amaya, players started checking in to get the season under way while front-office executives continued the process of filling out the 90-man roster.
It was the fourth day of a whirlwind week that began Monday with the NFL Players Association approving a new collective bargaining agreement that brought about the end of a 4-1/2-month lockout by the league’s owners.
The day began with the Saints learning of the trade of Bush, the second overall pick of the 2006 draft, and continued with several unrestricted free agents and draft picks coming to terms with the club.
Also, New Orleans apparently already had Bush’s replacement lined up as late Thursday night Foxsports.com reported that the Saints had agreed to terms on a two-year contract with former San Diego running back Darren Sproles, whom Saints coach Sean Payton said has a “comparable skill set” to Bush’s.
Players were given physicals, had conditioning tests and attended meetings in advance of taking the practice field for the first time Friday morning.
Weather permitting, they’ll work out at their training facility starting at 8:50 a.m. The Saints have 16 practices set to be open to the public this summer, but rain or wet grounds could change the plans on short notice.
The players, however, are just happy to be back after being forced to conduct their own workouts in May and early June because of the lockout.
“We’re all happy just to get back on the field again,” said quarterback Drew Brees, who last season was voted to his fourth Pro Bowl in five seasons with the Saints. “I know fans are excited about seeing their teams back in camp. Teams are going to put their best players on the field, and it’s going to be back to good, old-fashioned American football.”
While the Bush deal was being completed, the Saints continued to build their roster after having just 47 players under contract when the CBA was approved and could start negotiating with players.
Payton said during a late-afternoon news conference that six of their unrestricted free agents had agreed to contracts and three of their six draft picks had come to terms.
Tackle Jermon Bushrod, linebackers Scott Shanle and Jo-Lonn Dunbar, and safety Chris Reis agreed to return to the team Thursday after wide receiver Lance Moore and cornerback Leigh Torrence agreed Wednesday.
Cornerback Johnny Patrick, one of their two third-round draft picks, and a pair of seventh-round selections - linebacker Nate Bussey and defensive end Greg Romeus - also came to terms.
The Saints did lose two veteran unrestricted free agents as defensive tackle Remi Ayodele accepted an offer from the Minnesota Vikings and safety Usama Young went with the Cleveland Browns.
The Saints also reached an agreement with former Seattle Seahawks linebacker Will Herring on Wednesday.
Herring and all other veteran free agents cannot sign their deals until 4 p.m. Friday and can’t participate in any physical activity until the new CBA is ratified by the NFLPA’s rank and file, which is expected Aug. 4.
But the Saints will have enough players - about 70 counting the 21 undrafted free agents they signed earlier this week - to begin practice.
“Everyone’s in the same boat, so all the teams are in the same situation,” said Pro Bowl linebacker Jonathan Vilma. “The playing field is easy. For us, we’re going to try to do the best job responding and reacting to our situation.
“I think Sean (Payton) and (defensive coordinator) Gregg Williams, they’ll do a good job getting a great game plan, a great practice schedule going as we deal with this,” he said. “That’s all we can do, deal with it. We’ve got to look at it as a positive and find ways to get the young guys who are already here, get them some quality reps while the vets are still sitting out.”
Vilma and Brees were the ringleaders and on-field “coaches” during the workouts held at Tulane, which had more than 40 players participating four or five times a week.
While that has helped get them ready for camp, Payton said he was glad to finally work with his players for the first time since they were eliminated from the playoffs in January.
“There’s a couple of aspects of why we condition and practice in the offseason,” Payton said. “First, you start with the conditioning phase. I thought they ran well (Thursday). I think that aspect is important. You get nervous when you’re away from your team for such a long period of time.
“We’ve got real good leadership in this locker room. It was a time for them - a specific time for them - to take on that role. Obviously, it appears (the workouts) were well-thought out, well-organized.”
Payton said all of the players eligible to be in the facility were accounted for Thursday and most will be ready to go Friday for the first of two practices without pads.
Two players who likely won’t be ready are running back Chris Ivory, who had foot surgery in January, and cornerback Tracy Porter, who had surgery on his left knee during the offseason.
Running back Pierre Thomas, who underwent surgery on his ankle, should be ready to go, however.
“Chris is doing well,” Payton noted. “He won’t be ready to go (Friday). I’d be guessing if I tried to put a timeframe on it, so I think he’s got at least a couple weeks here, but he’s getting better and his rehab has gone well.
“Pierre Thomas passed the physical and ran the (conditioning) test. We’ve just got to monitor his early snaps.”
As quickly as Ivory and Thomas saw Bush depart a crowded backfield, they appeared to see Sproles (5-foot-6, 190 pounds) join it. Sproles, 28 like Bush, is a versatile, elusive back and pass catcher who excels as a returner.
When asked Thursday afternoon about Sproles, Payton said, “I think he (Sproles) is an exceptional talent. He is very versatile and dynamic.”
Foxsports.com reported the deal was for two years, but later NFL.com reported that it was a four-year, $14 million deal with $6 million guaranteed. Under terms of the collective bargaining agreement reached Monday, veteran free agents can’t sign contracts until Friday.