Brees says Sproles trade among "tougher" things he's dealt with in NFL

For Drew Brees, seeing former teammate Darren Sproles get traded from New Orleans to Philadelphia was one of the “tougher” things he’s had to process as a pro football player, the Saints quarterback said in an interview with Fox Sports and USA Today published Tuesday.

“I think a Darren Sproles only comes around once in your lifetime, in my career and in everybody’s career,” Brees said in Orlando at the NFL Players Association player rep meetings, via Fox Sports’ Mike Garafolo. “There may be another one 15, 20 years from now. But there’s not many guys like Darren Sproles. He’s a special player, he’s a special person, he’s a special teammate.”

The Saints traded Sproles for a fifth-round draft pick on Thursday. He had played as a rookie fourth-round draft pick with Brees in San Diego in 2005, but then the quarterback signed with the Saints in free agency for the 2006 season.

In 2011, Brees and Sproles worked out together during the NFL lockout, and the quarterback told Garafolo he recruited him to New Orleans. “Bro, you’re going to be a Saint, just get that in your head right now,” Brees said he told Sproles, according to Garafolo. “When this lockout is done, you’re going to be a Saint.”

Sproles soon signed a four-year, $14 million with New Orleans. In his first year with the Saints and his second alongside Brees, Sproles — a rushing, receiving and kick-return threat — set an NFL single-season record with 2,696 all-purpose yards as New Orleans got to the divisional round of the playoffs.

However, his production dropped in each of the next two campaigns. Sproles had 1,577 all-purpose yards in 2012, during which the Saints finished 7-9 and missed the postseason. In 2013, as New Orleans again reached the divisional round, he tallied 1,273 all-purpose yards, a staggering drop of 53 percent from what he had in 2011.

The Saints then traded Sproles.

“I’m lucky to have had the chance to play with him on two teams,” Brees reportedly said about Sproles to Garafolo.

Via USA Today’s Tom Pelissero, Brees said he’s confident All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham will be prepared to play whenever his offseason matters are taken care of. The Saints gave Graham a nonexclusive franchise tag worth $7 million.

A nonexclusive tag allows Graham to talk to other teams but gives the Saints a chance to match any offer he might be interested in. If they don’t match, they would receive two first-round draft picks from the signing team. And if he remains with the Saints, Graham would be given a one-year deal worth the average tag given to players at his position in the previous five years.

For a tight end, that’s worth $7 million in 2014. However, for a wide receiver, it’s worth $5 million more. Graham spent most of his time lining up out wide for the Saints, and it’s believed he could file a grievance for the players association to be classified as a wideout for the purposes of the tag given the massive boost in pay that could result in.

Meanwhile, the Saints and Graham are presumably working toward a long-term contract. Reaching such an agreement would mean the All-Pro wouldn’t even play under the tag.

“Listen, I know Jimmy will be ready to play, whether that means he’s coming in tomorrow, April 21st or August 21st,” Brees said, according to Pelissero. “I know Jimmy Graham will be ready to play, and he’ll be a big part of our offense and a big part of our team for a long time. I’m very confident that will work out.”

Brees, of course, was given a costlier exclusive franchise tag in 2012. But he signed a five-year, $100 million contract before playing under that tag — albeit his deal wasn’t wrapped up until July.

“Since I’ve been through it just two short years ago, you just know it’s part of the process,” Brees reportedly told Pelissero. “You can’t take any of that personal.”

Brees also said to Garafolo that it was “crazy” to think there were, as of Tuesday, just four of his teammates left on the Saints’ roster from the team that won Super Bowl XLIV, the franchise’s lone NFL championship.

They’re punter Thomas Morstead, guard Jahri Evans, tackle Zach Strief and running back Pierre Thomas. A fifth, receiver Robert Meachem, is an unrestricted free agent at the moment.

“It’s tough, because a lot of those guys (who’ve been let go) I’ve played with for eight years,” Brees said to Garafalo. “Eight years. Which is rare. I’d say that’s very rare in this day and age, to have that amount of time with a group of guys. You become very connected during that time, so it’s always hard when you get to this point.”

Between February and when Brees spoke to Garafolo, the Saints had parted ways with defensive veterans Jabari Greer, Will Smith, Roman Harper, Jonathan Vilma and Malcolm Jenkins as well as wide receiver Lance Moore. All had been on the Super Bowl squad. Smith, Harper and Moore were all on the Saints the year Brees began playing for them.

Greer, Smith and Moore were released, and they were still free agents when Tuesday began. Harper was also released, but he has since signed with NFC South rival Carolina.

Vilma became an unrestricted free agent on March 11 and was unsigned as of Tuesday. Jenkins agreed to sign with Philadelphia on March 11, two days before Sproles was traded there.