The longest 4-1/2 months of Will Herring’s NFL career took a turn for the better early on July 26, when teams could finally begin contacting free agents after a new collective bargaining agreement was approved.

For months, the lockout of players by the owners prevented teams from talking to prospective free agents. But when it ended, the New Orleans Saints were ready.

One of the first players they reached out to was Herring, a former Auburn standout who played four seasons as a nickel linebacker with the Seattle Seahawks after being selected in the fifth round of the 2007 draft.

The Saints were interested in shoring up their outside linebacker spots around two-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma and the 6-foot-3, 241-pound Herring apparently filled the bill.

“The Saints were one of the first teams to call,” said Herring, who noted they called him shortly after they could begin negotiating at 10 a.m. “I talked to coach (Sean) Payton a few minutes after talking to my agent, and he just let me know they wanted me.”

But the thing Herring really wanted to hear came seconds later when Payton assured him he would be allowed to compete for a starting job - either on the weak or strong sides.

“I felt good about coming down here and competing for a starting job, and playing with a championship-caliber team,” Herring said. “That’s your dream ? that’s everybody’s dream, so I’m blessed.”

It was strange considering Herring, who helped the Seahawks to a stunning 41-36 win over the Saints in the NFC wild-card round on Jan. 8, had no clue they were interested in bringing him in to challenge veterans Scott Shanle and Jonathan Casillas until the phone actually rang.

It was clear they had done their homework over the spring and summer months and identified Herring, who has started only seven of 54 career games, as one of the players they wanted to pursue.

“We saw a young player with durability and a player who was really good on special teams,” Payton said early in training camp. “We felt he was a guy who could contribute more in a base defense.”

Herring couldn’t agree more. Six of his seven starts came in 2009 when weakside linebacker Leroy Hill was sidelined with an injury.

“I prided myself on being ready when somebody went down,” Herring said. “There can’t be a drop-off, and I was happy with the way I played. I thought I showed them that I could play at a starting level when I got an opportunity.

“Last year, we didn’t have a lot of injuries, so I was just the nickel guy who came in on second-and-long and third-down situations.”

As a result, Herring was stuck behind Hill, a former third-round draft pick, and Aaron Curry, the fourth overall selection of the 2009 draft who mans the strong side.

“I just wanted to go somewhere I could play every down,” Herring said. “If they need me on nickel, I’ll stay on nickel. But I’m real happy with the opportunity they’ve given me and I’m excited about the season.”

After having to sit out the first week of training camp because the new CBA had to be ratified first, Herring was off and running and immediately took a spot with the first-team defense on the strong side.

Even though he missed three practices this week after suffering a calf contusion in last week’s preseason game at Houston, Herring is battling Shanle, Clint Ingram and third-round draft pick Martez Wilson for the starting job.

“There’s still a competition going on; nothing is handed to anybody,” said Herring, who earned his stripes on special teams with the Seahawks. “We’ve got a lot of good linebackers and we’re pushing each other.

“As a competitor, that’s what you want,” he said. “All you want is a chance to go out there and play and do what you love to do: that’s play football.”

Despite the calf injury, Herring said he feels good about where he’s is.

“Obviously, there are things to improve on,” Herring said. “I try to get better at one or two things every day. I felt good learning the new system, trying to fit in and trying to learn my role.”