Top 10 Best free agents signed by the Saints:
10. Quinn Early
9. Wesley Walls
5. La’Roi Glover
The Saints entered the 2010 season as defending Super Bowl champions, and their season ended in Seattle, with a wild card playoff loss. That season, injuries decimated the Saints running back corps: Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush and rookie undrafted free agent Chris Ivory all missed games with injuries, and Drew Brees suffered with an abdominal injury that affecting his passing –so much so, that he threw a career high 22 interceptions.
Those injuries to the running backs would forever shape Sean Payton’s approach to the running back position. For the next several seasons, the Saints would carry no fewer than four running backs on the roster. The first step to accomplishing that goal would be the drafting of Mark Ingram in the first round that year. Then there was the matter of how to sort out the remaining backs –and Reggie Bush read the handwriting on the wall: he wasn’t one of the backs in the Saints future plans.
However, there was also the matter of getting Drew Brees under contract.
Normally, 22 interceptions by your quarterback would be cause for concern, but with two trips to the NFC Championship game in four years, and the luster of a Lombardi trophy behind him, Drew and the Saints knew that 2010 was an aberration, not the norm. In July, Drew signed a 5 year, $100 million deal, including $60 million guaranteed, and a $37 million signing bonus.
The 2011 offseason also featured the first work stoppage since the 1987 season. During the lockout, Brees worked out in San Diego, with former teammate Darren Sproles. Sproles’ contract expired with the Chargers, and during the lockout, San Diego was vacillating on whether to pay him or let him go. With that in the back of Sproles’ mind, Drew lobbied for Sproles to join the Saints high powered offense.
When the lockout ended in late July, free agency officially opened, and the Saints traded Reggie Bush to the Miami Dolphins.
Drew doubled his efforts on getting Sproles: “We need you baby, come join us, you’ll fit in great, win a championship, let’s break some records, let’s do something special, let’s go,'” Brees said to the Times-Picayune in his pitch. “I pulled out all the stops.”
Days after the trade, Sproles signed a 4-year $14 million deal with the Saints, and a key piece to the most explosive offense in Saints history was in place.
Darren Sproles was originally a 4th round pick in the 2005 draft for the San Diego Chargers. Although he only played with Brees for one season, they remained friends. He was an all-purpose threat for the Chargers, much like Bush was for the Saints. However, Sproles proved to be a better inside runner, and far more elusive in the open field than Bush, despite not be as fast.
The Chargers slapped a franchise tag on Sproles in 2009, then a transition tag on him in 2010, but never could come up with a long term contract.
Peyton Manning jokingly said that Sproles joining the Saints was “not fair” to the rest of the league.
Darren Sproles soon proved that Manning’s statement was no joke.
In the season opener against the defending Super Bowl Champion Green Packers, Sproles sparked a Saints offensive awaking with 72 yard punt return for a TD. In week 3, against the Houston Texans, Sproles accounted for 193 all-purpose yards, including a 30 yard TD run.
He broke the 1,000 yard all-purpose yard mark by week 7, in a team record blowout of the Indianapolis Colts, 62-7. Sproles scored on a 16 yard run as well as a 6 yard TD pass.
On a December 26th Monday night game against the Falcons, Sproles accounted for 236 total yards, but most importantly, his 9 yard TD reception allowed Drew Brees to break Dan Marino’s 1984 single season passing yardage record of 5,084.
The following week, Sproles set the NFL single season total yardage record with 2,696.
The Saints finished the season with a 13-3 record, tying their best ever season record, were #1 in passing offense and #4 in rushing offense. However, they were the 3rd seed in the playoffs, which meant playing in the wild card round, before travelling to 2nd seed San Francisco for the divisional round playoff game. Sproles last bit of magic was a 44 yard TD reception to give the Saints their first lead of the game late in the 4th quarter.
In 2012, Darren Sproles fractured his hand, and missed several games and while he had his moments, like the rest of the offense, they were out of sync much of the season due to Bountygate.
For 2013 Sproles appeared return to form, and both he and Pierre Thomas were the #2 and #3 receivers behind Jimmy Graham. However, Sproles appeared to lack the explosive burst he had in 2011. His rushing, receiving and kick return yards all had shown a steady decline from his first season. Finally, Sproles hit that magic number of 30 –the age when running backs suddenly decline.
Therefore, in the 2014 offseason, the Saints traded Sproles to the Philadelphia Eagles for a 5th round pick. “You only see a Darren Sproles type of player come around once in your career,” Brees said after the trade.
Indeed, the Saints tried several players to fulfil that role –Travaris Cadet and CJ Spiller, but neither could come close to giving the Saints that “joker” player. In 2017 Saints traded up in the 3rd round by sacrificing a 2nd round pick in the 2018 draft to select Alvin Kamara, and it while he is a different player from Sproles, he finally gives the Saints that mismatch out of the backfield in the passing game.