ORLANDO, Fla. — As things stood when Saints coach Sean Payton met with the media at the annual NFL owners meeting on Wednesday, New Orleans’ plan at the center position was in no way finalized.
That’s chiefly because Brian de la Puente — their starter at center the previous three seasons — remained a free agent, and he was reportedly mulling his possibilities in New Orleans, Washington and possibly elsewhere.
However, Payton did sound sure about at least one thing on the issue: Tim Lelito, who is heading into his second year after starting two games at right guard for the Saints in 2013, will enter New Orleans’ 2014 training camp with a shot to earn the first-string job at center.
“It’s still unfolding, so it’d be premature to just say, ‘Hey, (this is) the plan today …, (but) we feel like (Lelito) has a chance to be that player,” Payton said in response to a question about the situation at center.
Payton, though, made it abundantly clear that he’d most likely be competing against more veteran competition, whether that’s a re-signed de la Puente or another free agent.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a player signed,” Payton also said. “Tim Lelito would be a guy that’s in the mix as someone competing for that opportunity, but … we’ll see who it is he’s competing against.”
Lelito, listed on the roster as a backup guard/center, certainly got experience on the offensive line in 2013 that will serve him well moving forward. After making the Saints as an undrafted rookie from Grand Valley State at the end of a preseason in which he memorably recovered an end-zone fumble for a touchdown, he filled in at right guard for two games that four-time All-Pro Jahri Evans sat out due to injuries.
The Saints won both games. In the first, against Arizona in Week 3, he surrendered three quarterback sacks against three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. In the second, at Atlanta in Week 12, he gave up a play that ended in lost yardage and was called for a holding penalty, but he noticeably improved.
More importantly, New Orleans won both games on the way to a run to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.
Nonetheless, Payton declared it was “essential to have someone” at camp with Lelito. “And it could very well be a guy like de la Puente or another player who’s out there.”
Aside from de la Puente, an unrestricted free agent since March 11, another logical possibility is Jonathan Goodwin.
Though Payton didn’t mention him specifically on Wednesday, Goodwin hit the open market this offseason after playing with the Saints from 2006 to 2010. After helping the Saints win Super Bowl XLIV in his fourth year in New Orleans, Goodwin left for San Francisco in free agency and remained there for three seasons.