At some point this offseason, Saints coach Sean Payton is going to have to choose whether he wants a former Pro Bowler who’s played for two NFL championships or a second-year interior offensive lineman who’s shown encouraging signs of his potential to start at center.
What a problem to have, right?
The Saints on Tuesday officially announced they had reunited with veteran free-agent center Jonathan Goodwin, signing him to a one-year deal that provides the team with maximum flexibility at the one position where New Orleans did not have a proven starter center as the 2014 season was inching closer.
Tim Lelito, who in 2013 was an undrafted rookie out of NCAA Division II member Grand Valley State and started in two games at right guard in his first campaign with the Saints, had handled first-string center duties at New Orleans’ opening series of voluntary organized team activities from May 27-29.
But his prior experience in the NFL at center was limited: He started there in a Saints defeat at Miami in the final 2013 preseason exhibition; he’d been taking practice reps at the spot; and many pundits considered the position to be “a question mark” for the team as it gears up for this season.
Neither preseason games nor practice snaps can truly replicate the conditions of a regular-season NFL game, though. And that’s why it’s been long assumed the Saints would eventually hammer out a contract with Goodwin.
That was especially so after Payton and Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis previously promised they’d provide Lelito competition for the job at center, which since 2011 had been manned by Brian de la Puente, who left for the Chicago Bears in free agency in April.
Goodwin, at 35, has in all likelihood already seen his best years. But his credentials would automatically make him a serious contender to start at virtually every NFL club.
While with the Saints from 2006-10, he was a Pro Bowler the year New Orleans won Super Bowl XLIV. He moved on to the San Francisco 49ers from 2011-13 and was crucial to the success of their running game, one of the NFL’s most intricate, helping his team finish eighth, fourth and third in ground yards per game as they made it to the conference championship three times and the Super Bowl once.
The 49ers ultimately chose to allow Goodwin to leave in free agency, letting two much younger players — 26-year-old veteran backup Daniel Kilgore and rookie third-round draft selection Marcus Martin — audition for center.
The Saints waited until the passing of June 1, when veteran signings stopped affecting a team’s chances of getting compensatory draft picks for 2015. Then, they set up the preseason duel between Goodwin and Lelito.
Whoever wins out in the end will have ample support to the left, right and rear of him. Left guard Ben Grubbs and his counterpart on the right, Jahri Evans, are each Pro Bowlers. Evans furthermore was First Team Associated Press All-Pro from 2009-12 and only missed a fifth-straight spot in that group after sitting out two games with injury in ’13.
Meanwhile, Saints quarterback Drew Brees — who’s in charge of the bulk of offensive line adjustments centers are lynchpins to — needs no introduction after four seasons passing for 5,000-plus yards and a Super Bowl MVP trophy.
The line also retains starters Terron Armstead at left tackle and Zach Strief at right tackle, who formed part of a unit that in 2013 gave up more sacks than Brees is used to but still allowed among the fewest in the NFL.
Goodwin and Lelito both have reasons to think they can win the gig to start alongside Armstead, Grubbs, Evans and Strief. Aside from his other accomplishments, Goodwin was more successful in run blocking than de la Puente was two of the past three years, according to analytics from the website Pro Football Focus.
Of course, the Saints love it whenever they can complement a passing attack that’s never been worse than fourth since Brees and Payton arrived in 2006 with a ground game that picks up the yards the 49ers have been getting.
But don’t pity Lelito in light of Goodwin’s return. After struggling in his first start and giving up three sacks to a three-time Pro Bowler, he improved markedly in his second; and the Saints won the two games, both of which were big steps to New Orleans’ two-night stand in the playoffs as a wild card in 2013.
There have been humbler beginnings to the careers of players who ended up beating out established veterans for a starting job.
For Lelito, either that happens, which would mean he’s got the chance to grow into quite the player or he spends another year developing under veteran teammates including Brees, Evans, Strief, Goodwin and Grubbs (the first four in that group of five knows what it’s like to win a Super Bowl).
All of which is to say, barring an unexpected injury, it’s now OK to stop calling center “a question mark” for the Saints.
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Goodwin’s first public remarks about rejoining the Saints were two messages via Twitter: “Funny how this thing called life goes! #whodat” and “Thanks niner empire! Forever grateful for the opportunity.”