OXNARD, Calif. (AP) — When the New Orleans Saints' defense stayed on top of Darren Sproles a bit too long during a practice drill on Thursday, most of the offense jumped in to rescue the new running back, setting off a brief scuffle on an otherwise peaceful California afternoon. Safety Malcolm Jenkins even grabbed hold of tight end Jimmy Graham's facemask before everybody calmed down.
The Saints have a clear interest in keeping the durable Sproles healthy. They're counting on the undersized speedster to help carry them past the departure of Reggie Bush and on to bigger achievements — and that's exactly why Sproles chose the Saints in free agency.
"The reason I came here was to get a ring," Sproles said. "This team, they know how to win, maybe because they've been here before."
The Chargers never got there during his six years down the coast in San Diego, and Sproles doesn't exactly sound disappointed about leaving for a four-year, $14 million deal with New Orleans during last month's frenzied free-agent signing period.
Sproles said the only thing he misses about Southern California is the weather, "and that's it." He also said the Saints "work a little bit harder" in training camp than he remembers in San Diego.
Sproles chose New Orleans over Philadelphia and or a return to San Diego, which used its franchise tag on Sproles in each of the past two seasons. The designation allowed Sproles to make nearly $14 million over the past two years alone, but didn't give him the long-term commitment he desired despite playing in every game for San Diego over the past three years as a key component of coach Norv Turner's offense.
He's just one part of a dynamic group of running backs in New Orleans, but Sproles has always been at his best as a change-of-pace back who can cause trouble for opponents in small doses. He rushed for 267 yards and caught 59 passes for 520 yards last season, his third straight with at least 29 catches to go with 330 yards rushing.
When NFL teams finally were cleared to sign free agents last month, Saints quarterback Drew Brees immediately went after Sproles, briefly his Chargers teammate and a longtime workout buddy in San Diego. Brees barraged him with texts, the quarterback gleefully admits.
"Every spring and summer, we always work out together," Sproles said. "Then, he would always say that he wanted me in a Saints uniform. He would just be playing, but it actually came true."
Sproles already is working with Heisman Trophy-winning rookie running back Mark Ingram, who returned to practice with the Saints on Thursday after missing two days with a swollen knee. Ingram insists the injury isn't serious, but the Saints will watch him closely, given his history of knee problems at Alabama.
"There's nothing wrong with it," said Ingram, who will play in Sunday's exhibition game at Oakland. "It doesn't hurt. There's really no pain."
NOTES: Saints WR Joseph Morgan will have arthroscopic surgery on Monday to repair a torn meniscus in his knee. Morgan is expected to be out 2-4 weeks, according to Saints coach Sean Payton. Morgan had an MRI exam on Thursday that revealed the tear. ... LB Will Herring returned to practice after a few days off to rest his strained right calf. Herring said he got accidentally leg-whipped during an earlier practice. "There's some things I can improve on, but I'm feeling good learning the new system and trying to know my role," said Herring, who left the Seattle Seahawks as a free agent after four seasons. ... S Roman Harper broke a finger on his right hand, and he might not play in Oakland. Payton said Harper easily could play with a splint if Sunday's game was a regular-season contest. ... Payton finally found a flaw in the Saints' week in Oxnard: He has an allergy that left him coughing throughout his post-practice meeting with reporters.