NEW ORLEANS - New Orleans Saints officials reached an agreement in principle with free agent running back/return specialist Darren Sproles on July 28, but the seed had been planted months earlier by quarterback Drew Brees.

During the 131-day NFL lockout, when teams were prohibited from talking to players and agents, Brees began courting his former Chargers teammate while the two worked out in the San Diego area.

Thanks in part to the Saints’ self-appointed “recruiting coordinator,’’ the seamless transition from Reggie Bush to the diminutive Sproles (5-6, 190) took less than 24 hours.

Sproles, 28, made it official Aug. 4, signing a four-year, $14 million contract that includes $6 million in guarantees. He joins a crowded backfield that features No. 1 draft pick Mark Ingram, veteran Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory (who remains on the sideline with foot and groin injuries) and Joique Bell, who suffered a sprained knee in Friday night’s 24-3 exhibition win against San Francisco.

Free agent running back Patrick Cobbs was added to the mix Tuesday in anticipation of Saturday night’s exhibition game against the Houston Texans (1-0) at Reliant Stadium.

“It started off as fun, but when free agency started hitting a little bit, and Bush got traded to Miami, that’s when I got that first call from (Brees),’’ Sproles said. “He was just saying that he would love for me to come here. He told me that New Orleans would be a great fit for me, that they had a great locker room and stuff like that.

“So for him to go out of his way to get me to come here, actually, meant a lot to me.’’

Judging by Brees’ reaction to the move, the pleasure is all his.

“I think it is awesome,’’ Brees said. “I was in San Diego in 2005 when Sproles was drafted there. I am very familiar with him, although he was a very young player at the time. To think that our backfield at the time was LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner, and Darren Sproles coming in as a rookie.

“I am very familiar with (Sproles) as a person, his work ethic, and the drive and competitiveness that he has. I think he is going to fit in great with this team, in this locker room and in this offensive system. He is a guy who has exceptional skills, and we are going to be able to use him in a lot of different ways in this offense.’’

Some of those ways:

• As a return specialist in San Diego from 2005 through 2010, Sproles scored four touchdowns and averaged 25.1 yards on 258 kick returns and 8.2 yards on 114 punt returns.

e_SBlt He caught 146 passes for 1,400 yards and 11 touchdowns.

e_SBlt He also rushed 249 times for 1,154 yards and six touchdowns.

Sproles’ true value in New Orleans is expected to come on special teams and in passing situations, where Saints coach Sean Payton and Brees hope to exploit the player’s skills set in open space.

“At the very end, it was between Philadelphia and us,’’ Payton said. “It was back to the college days of recruiting. Drew and I were on the phone (separately) with Darren, and (Saints General Manager) Mickey (Loomis) was talking with the agent.

“Certainly, we drew from the relationship that Drew had with him. Beginning the night we traded Reggie to Miami, that process to get Darren then picked up,” Payton said. “It wasn’t like we had to have him, but boy, we sure would like to if we can work it out. Fortunately for us, it worked out.’’

Truth be told, it couldn’t have worked out any better for both Sproles and the Saints, who seem to be a perfect match. Most observers believe Sproles is an upgrade over Bush because of his leg strength and ability to run between the tackles.

“I always thought about what it would be like to be there when I saw the way they used Reggie back in the day,’’ Sproles said. “I thought, ?man, New Orleans would be a great fit for me.’ I was thinking even back then because they use him right; they put him in space and let him do what he does best.

“New Orleans was No. 1 on my wish list. I made that known to my agent, Jimmy Sexton. I told him, ?Make that happen for me.’ And it did. Now that I’m here, and it’s great to be able to run behind this big old line. The only thing left for me to do is go out and make plays.’’

The Saints are counting on it.