Ben Grubbs’ injury has Saints interior line living in limbo

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — What a mess on the Saints interior line.

Neither second-year pro Tim Lelito nor veteran Jonathan Goodwin have stepped forward during the first nine days of training camp to become the front-runner at center, holding back defensive teammates during drills, as well as each other.

One spot over, Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs on Monday evening missed his sixth consecutive practice with an undisclosed injury, leaving doubt on coach Sean Payton’s recent statement that Grubbs’ injury is minor.

Perhaps the best, new option is Senio Kelemete, a former fifth-round draft pick of Arizona in the 2012. Kelemete, whose versatility allows him to play guard and tackle, earned first-team snaps Monday at center.

“He’s had a ton of reps, and I would say he’s been pretty impressive,” Payton said in advance of Friday night’s preseason opener at St. Louis. “Because of the injury up front — we’re waiting for Grubbs to get back — listen, he knows what to do, and I think he’s handled it pretty well.”

Kelemete spent last week filling in for Grubbs at left guard.

Yet even Kelemete had one big no-no Monday at The Greenbrier: Kelemete and backup quarterback Ryan Griffin combined for one fumbled snap. Payton added that Kelemete needs to continue to work on finishing blocks, and the adjustment to center comes with a learning curve.

Still, Payton said, “I’ve been encouraged.”

The Saints are trying to replace former center Brian de la Puente, who this offseason became the second Saints offensive lineman in as many seasons to depart for Chicago, where former Saints offensive line coach Aaron Kromer is the Bears offensive coordinator. Last season, de la Puente allowed a team-low 19 pressures in 739 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

By comparison, Lelito allowed nine in 97 snaps.

True, the Saints are here to address and fix such problems. But the sooner they are fixed, the quicker last season’s second-ranked passing offense can focus on game plans versus who’s in the huddle.

The Saints need stability on the line to continue last season’s late improvements in rushing. Mark Ingram is expected to lead rushing efforts this fall, along with Khiry Robinson; Pierre Thomas; and Travaris Cadet, a third-down, passing-play option. The Saints averaged 92.1 rushing yards per game last season, 25th in the league.

Lelito served as a swing lineman last season, able to play both interior spots on the line.

Now it seems the Saints are also looking at Goodwin as a potential swing player. He split reps Monday at center and left guard. Film review will likely decide if Monday’s experiment with Goodwin at guard continues.

Lelito, an undrafted free agent in 2013, continued to struggle during one-on-one drills against pass rushers, being beat by Akiem Hicks and Lawrence Virgil.

Goodwin was better. He held off Tyrunn Walker, and another time, allowed penetration but held on.

Kelemete was the best, withstanding rushes from Brodrick Bunkley and Brandon Deaderick.