When free agency began the consensus was that the Saints were likely to lose one of their two free agent starting offensive linemen. Most agreed that Zach Strief was the priority to retain, which happened, but the Saints will be going with a new starting center in 2014 as Brian de la Puente signed a 1 year deal with the Chicago Bears. The Bears are fairly set on the interior with good guards in Matt Slauson and Kyle Long and veteran center Roberto Garza. So what’s most puzzling is that after visits with at least the Redskins and Giants who are both desperately in need of starting help, de la Puente is signing a one year deal to be a backup. Despite being just 28 and a 16 game starter in each of the last two seasons, de la Puente only got 1 year at the veteran’s minimum to be a backup. I’m sure he likes the idea of re-uniting with Aaron Kromer and all, but wow. Either the league values centers as lower than dirt or BDLP is much worse than we thought he was. The fact that the Saints wouldn’t be interested in bringing him back at the veteran’s minimum for one year to start is surprising. So who’s the starting center for the Saints now anyway?
Currently the Saints don’t have a single true center on the roster. In fact, behind Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs they only have two backups on the roster right now. Those are Tim Lelito and Senio Kelemete. You’ll remember Lelito as the undrafted rookie that played one abomination of a start against the Cardinals and one much improved start against the Falcons in 2013. Kelemete was a 5th round pick for that same Cardinals franchise in 2012 and spent last season on the Saints’ practice squad. If the season started today, Lelito would be the center despite the fact that he’s never played center for the team and only started in 2 games after going undrafted. In fact, at this point all he’s done is play guard quite poorly in an exceedingly small sample size.
Now, I fully expect the Saints to both add a veteran AND draft a rookie on the interior line. There is no way they are going into training camp in the current shape they are in with no depth and Lelito handed the starting job at center. But even knowing that leaves the current roster as we see it very thin and frankly a little scary. Yes we all know Jonathan Goodwin is available and that many of us, myself included, have been hoping that move would come to fruition. That seems more likely to happen now. Goodwin has already made it known to the Saints he is open to a return. But I will say this: if the Saints don’t address this position and trust Lelito going into 2014, it will be a bigger mistake than rolling with Charles Brown at left tackle in 2013. Put me on record.
It may not be fair to jump to conclusions on Lelito based on the little we’ve seen. Actually, it isn’t. And of course the Saints have seen much more of Lelito in practice to help educate their decision. But let’s not forget this is the same staff that rolled the dice with the Charles Brown/Jason Smith experiment as a bridge to Terron Armstead. I don’t want Tim Lelito being the bridge to anything. Lelito should be the assumed backup that pleasantly surprises us if he ends up the starter by beating out two players we all expected to own him (like Goodwin and a 3rd round pick) and nothing more.
So while the Saints’ current attention is on a decision regarding Rafael Bush (his deal with the Falcons becomes a contract on Tuesday if the Saints do not match) the team’s biggest need is now at center.