Charles Brown gets first shot at left tackle

This is an important time in the young career of Charles Brown, the heir apparent to replace departed Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod for the New Orleans Saints.

After three inauspicious seasons, one might go so far as to call it a make-or-break training camp for Brown, a second-round pick in 2010 from Southern California.

In laymen’s terms, the starting position appears to be Brown’s to lose. In coach-speak, there is an open competition at left tackle among Brown, third-round pick Terron Armstead and free agent Jason Smith, the second overall pick in the 2009 draft who failed to prove himself with the St. Louis Rams (2009 through 2011) and New York Jets (2012).

May the best player win.

Sunday morning marked the team’s first day of training camp in pads. Brown opened with the first unit and acquitted himself well, both in pass- and run-blocking drills and team work.

But the race for Brown is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

“(Brown) is working with the (first team) right now, but there’s competition at that position,’’ Saints coach Sean Payton said after the 21/2-hour workout. “I think he’s ready for the transition to step into that spot. It’s not going to be handed to him. He’s going to have to earn it and part of that for him is staying healthy.’’

The knock against Brown in New Orleans has been his inability to stay healthy and be available for duty. After a fairly innocuous rookie season, he started eight games — five in 2011 and three in 2012 — in place of injured right tackle Zach Strief and finished both seasons on injured reserve.

In 2012, a knee injury sidelined him with six games remaining. In 2011, a hip flexor sidelined him for the final eight games.

“I’ve been coming in before practice, about an hour and a half earlier, sitting in the hot tub, stretching out, and getting in my lift before to loosen up my hips,’’ Brown said. “You can’t prevent everything, but I want to make sure my hips are loose.’’

Brown (6-foot-5, 297 pounds) is taking additional precaution, wearing braces for the first time on both knees. For someone who had been relatively injury-free before his arrival in New Orleans, Brown is working hard at becoming a better professional on and off the field.

“I’ve talked to teammates about chiropractic work, massages and ice wraps,’’ Brown said. “I had been doing that already, not too much at SC but here. I stayed healthy at SC, never missed a game.

“’There are a lot of things that go into being a pro. At SC, they taught us a lot of the stuff because it was kind of like a pro team. But getting injuries and having to be patient and still being able to work, that’s the part of being a pro that I’ve had to learn, especially when stuff is going wrong. You got to be more patient and look at the positive, and I never really had to do that at SC.’’

Bushrod’s exit to the Chicago Bears in free agency and Brown’s recent injury problems strongly influenced Saints officials to sign Smith off the street on April 11 and take Armstead in the third round two weeks later. The acquisitions not only improved the depth at left tackle but also sent a message to Brown.

“Of the three years Charles has been here, that’s been the concern; the reliability part,’’ Saints offensive line coach Bret Ingalls said. “When he’s not practicing, he’s not developing like he should.

“Certainly all of them need to be available. If they’re going to compete for the left tackle job, they need to be available. Right now, they’re healthy, we’re excited about it and we’ll see where it goes.’’

Where it goes is anyone’s guess at this early juncture of training camp. But it’s clear Armstead wants to prove that he is more than an “athletic freak’’ who improved his draft stock dramatically at the combine in Indianapolis.

“That combine is in the past,’’ said Armstead, who also starred in track and field at Arkansas-Pine Bluff. “That has nothing to do with this out here. That helped me get noticed, to be able to get here, but this is a whole fresh start.

“I’m definitely hungry. I’m definitely a competitor, that’s the beauty of the game. The challenge is in the competition; that’s why we play football, that’s why we love football. That’s why I play the game.’’

For Brown, Armstead and Smith, the game is on.