The New Orleans Saints' Center of Attention
Aside from special teams, center may be the most anonymous position in football. Think about it, how many centers can you name relative to other positions? Probably not too many, unless you are an offensive line enthusiast. Anonymity aside, centers are incredibly important to the rhythm of an offense as they touch the ball on every play and must be completely in tune with the quarterback to keep an offense ticking.
Once Brian De La Puente, the Saints' 2013 starting center, signed with the Chicago Bears it left a major question mark in the middle of their otherwise great offensive line. De La Puente has been a solid starter for the Saints since 2011, and as of now the inexperienced Tim Lelito is their center. Both Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis have expressed their optimism for the center position, including praise for Lelito, but his lack of experience is still a bit troubling.
Lelito got his only playing time in 2013 at guard when he filled in for the injured All-Pro Jahri Evans. While no one realistically expected Lelito to play at Evan's level, Lelito still struggled quite a bit. In just 96 pass protection snaps, Lelito surrendered nine QB pressures - four of which were sacks (according to Pro Football Focus). Below is his 2013 pass blocking efficiency compared to De La Puente and Jonathan Goodwin - a free agent center who seems like a logical candidate for the Saints to consider:
Tim Lelito - 91.9
Brian De La Puente - 98.3
Jonathan Goodwin - 97.2
PFF's pass blocking efficiency is a weighted formula that factors in sacks, hits and hurries (with sacks weighted more) relative to the number of pass protection snaps a player participates in.
Now, Lelito was playing these snaps at guard, which I recognize is different than center, but the bottom line here is that he struggled to keep defenders away from Drew Brees.
Goodwin, a former Saint under Sean Payton, still played at a high enough level in 2013 that he would definitely be able to compete for the Saints' starting center job. Being 35 years old also means that he likely will not command a big salary, which is key considering the Saints' cap situation. This signing would allow Lelito or any rookies they bring in to develop a bit further (if necessary) while still having a player with adequate skills at the position.
This isn't to say that Lelito can't step up and be a good player, though, as undrafted rookies aren't necessarily expected to be consistent contributors in year one. We will have to wait and see if he is able to make the leap in his second year, as early indications show that the starting center job is his to win or lose.