Saints deal Sproles to Eagles for a 5th-round pick

Surrounded by talk that at least 10 teams in the NFL were interested in trading for him, Saints running back Darren Sproles has been dealt to the Philadelphia Eagles for a fifth-round draft selection, a league source has confirmed to The Advocate.

It was initially believed Sproles could be cut if he couldn’t be traded, but he remained on the Saints’ roster through Thursday morning on a contract with one year and $3.5 million left. The trade to Philadelphia began being widely reported about 8 a.m. by CBS Sports, NFL Network and ESPN, and it was officially processed by the league office in the afternoon.

The Saints’ freeing themselves of Sproles’ contract creates more salary cap space in the wake of the enormous six-year deal they agreed to terms on with marquee free-agent safety Jairus Byrd on Tuesday. Byrd’s signing became official Thursday.

Byrd’s contract is worth about $54 million, with $26.3 million of it guaranteed, salary cap expert Joel Corry reported Wednesday. His 2014 cap number is $3.5 million.

The Saints started the free agency period with fewer than $3 million in salary cap space to spend on players. But they’ll have more after the Sproles trade and their decision Wednesday to give a two-year contract extension to running back Pierre Thomas, which should lower Thomas’ cap figure.

Sproles had indicated he would’ve preferred to be released over being traded so he could become a free agent and be in control of where he played next.

“I want to get released — I don’t want to be traded,” Sproles told ESPN’s Josina Anderson on Wednesday. “I don’t know where they would send me because I have no control over it, and I want to be able to pick.

“The good thing is none of the teams I’m told they’re talking to are terrible.”

However, he likely won’t mind teaming up with a rushing attack that finished No. 1 in the NFL in 2013 and features running back LeSean McCoy. McCoy topped the NFL by rushing for 1,607 yards in the 2013 regular season. He also scored 11 total touchdowns, nine of which were rushing scores.

Sproles probably won’t be too upset at who his new quarterback is either. Nick Foles turned in the NFL’s best passer rating last year (119.2) after throwing for 27 touchdowns, 2,891 yards and only two interceptions. He completed 203 of his 317 passing attempts (64 percent), too.

But, in the wildcard round of the playoffs, the Saints’ defense held the Eagles’ vaunted up-tempo offense to 161 yards under its average for the year and defeated Philadelphia 26-24. It was the first true road playoff victory in franchise history for New Orleans.

Sproles is also joining wide receiver DeSean Jackson — who had the ninth-most receiving yards in the NFL last season — and former Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, who agreed to terms with the Eagles on a three-year contract on Tuesday an hour into the free agency signing period.

Sproles bid farewell to New Orleans via Twitter on Friday, and his departure seemed virtually certain in light of Thomas’ extension.

But he led folks to believe he’d been in the dark about his own status, which upset some of his supporters.

He logged on Twitter on Tuesday; quoted an ESPN report about the interest in a trade for him; said, “Wow!” — and concluded, “The stuff u find out on Twitter.”

His wife, Michel, on Wednesday night published a profanity-laced message on the social media network Instagram criticizing the Saints’ front office, accusing the team of mistreating her husband and saying God would punish the organization.

But it’s hard to fault the Saints for holding out for Thursday’s result.

Shortly after joining the Saints in free agency in 2011, 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 nonetheless lauded Sproles for his tenure in black and gold.

“Darren Sproles played an important role for us on both offense and special teams for the last three seasons,” General Manager Mickey Loomis said in a statement Thursday. “He did everything that was asked of him ... well.”

Coach Sean Payton called Sproles “one of the smartest football players” he’d ever been around.

“He has been exceptionally consistent and dynamic coming out of the backfield for us the last three seasons and provided us with many different options,” Payton said in a statement. “We will ... fondly remember his time as a member of the Saints and ... thank him for his professionalism.”

Sproles posted a total of 1,152 rushing yards, 2,197 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns in 48 games for the Saints, including the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Saints have gotten some good value out of fifth-round draft picks under Payton. Among them are guard Carl Nicks (2008, two-time All-Pro), punter Thomas Morstead (2009, one-time Pro Bowler), wide receiver Kenny Stills (2013, starter last year) and cornerback Corey White (2012, also a starter).

New Orleans picked defensive end/linebacker Rob Ninkovich in the fifth round of the 2006 draft. Though the Saints let him go on two separate occasions, he has helped the New England Patriots get to three AFC title games as well as a Super Bowl. Payton has said not keeping Ninkovich is one of the biggest regrets he’s had since taking over the Saints in 2006.