During an offseason in which his team’s three-year starter at center left town, second-year Saints offensive lineman Tim Lelito invested time in acclimating himself with a skill he otherwise may not have concentrated on as much.
“I did a lot of snapping,” Lelito said Wednesday to local reporters during an appearance at Airline Park Academy in Metairie. “I got real comfortable with that.”
Such is life for a player whose superiors have repeatedly said will compete for a job vacated by Brian de la Puente, who was the first-string center in New Orleans from 2011 through 2013 and joined the Chicago Bears in free agency earlier in April.
It was clear from Lelito’s statements that he was giving himself the best shot possible to succeed de la Puente. Aside from keeping in shape and boning up on snapping, he’s immersed himself in the Saints’ playbook to learn what each member of the offensive line is supposed to be doing at any given moment.
“Last year, I had to know the plays, but this year I have to know the ins and outs of every play,” Lelito said. “I have to know what everyone’s doing on the line so we’re all together.
“If I say we’re going here, that’s where we’re going, so it’s kind of on me. I have to pay a little more attention.”
Nonetheless, the Saints have been upfront about their intention to bring in someone to compete with the 6-foot-4, 315-pound Lelito when New Orleans’ training camp begins in July.
They reportedly visited with free-agent center Jonathan Goodwin, who was with the Saints from 2006-10, played three seasons for San Francisco and is back on the open market. He was a Pro Bowler the year the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV.
The Saints have also been linked to a couple of centers who will be available in the upcoming May 8-10 draft.
Lelito on Tuesday insisted those matters don’t concern him. “Whatever I can do to help the team get better this year is what I’m going to do,” whether that’s as a starting center, a reserve at that position or a backup to guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans, he said.
No matter what his future holds, Lelito accumulated experience as a rookie in 2013 that should benefit him greatly.
After making the Saints as an undrafted free agent out of NCAA Division II Grand Valley State at the end of a preseason in which he memorably recovered a goal-line fumble for a touchdown, Lelito filled in at right guard for two games that four-time All-Pro Evans sat out due to injuries.
In the first, against Arizona in Week 3, he surrendered three quarterback sacks to 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 improved noticeably.
What made the performance against the Falcons even more remarkable was that days earlier he had attended the funeral of the grandmother who raised him in his youth in Michigan.
New Orleans won both games on the way to a run to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.
“It’s less surprising every time you go out (and start),” Saints right tackle Zach Strief said Tuesday in response to a question about how beneficial it was for Lelito to step in for Evans. “Things start to slow down.”
“It’s definitely different … going from a D-II college and coming into the NFL,” he remarked. “That was a huge step, so every day you’ve just got to keep working, keep learning … from the … veterans.”