Tom Pelissero / USA Today
ORLANDO — New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees says he has "no doubt" tight end and teammate Jimmy Graham will be on the field for Week 1, no matter how his franchise-tag fight plays out.
Running back Darren Sproles won't be there, though. And Brees made clear in an interview with two reporters Tuesday at the NFL Players Association's annual meetings that Sproles is one key part of the Saints offense they won't be able to replace.
"I think a Darren Sproles only comes around once in your lifetime, in my career and in everybody's career," Brees said of the quicksilver back, whom the Saints traded to the Philadelphia Eagles last week for a fifth-round draft pick.
"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 planned to cut Sproles, 30, if they couldn't deal him rather than pay his $3.4 million base salary this year on the heels of a 2013 season in which he had just 824 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns.
They're clearing space in part because they need to re-sign Graham, 27, who is headed for either a lucrative contract extension or a grievance hearing on his claim the franchise tag should pay him like a wide receiver, not a tight end.
"Listen, I know Jimmy will be ready to play, whether that means he's coming in tomorrow, April 21st or August 21st," Brees added. "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, 35, speaks from experience. He sat out all offseason practices in 2012 after getting the franchise tag, then signed a five-year, $100 million contract weeks before training camp began.
"Since I've been through it just two short years ago, you just know it's part of the process," Brees said. "You can't take any of that personal."
Nor can Brees take it personally the Saints cut ties with receiver Lance Moore and several members of the defense — cornerback Jabari Greer, safety Roman Harper, linebackers Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma — that helped lead them to a Super Bowl win after the 2009 season.