Saints’ Tim Lelito could get shot at starting center job

ORLANDO, Fla. — As things stood when Saints coach Sean Payton met with media at the annual NFL owners meeting Wednesday, the team’s plan at the center position was in no way finalized.

That’s chiefly because Brian de la Puente — the Saints’ starting center the previous three seasons — remained a free agent, and he was reportedly mulling his possibilities in New Orleans, Washington and possibly elsewhere.

However, speaking at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes hotel in Orlando, Payton did sound sure about at least one thing on the issue: Tim Lelito, who is heading into his second year after starting two games at right guard for the Saints in 2013, will enter training camp with a shot to earn the first-string job at center.

“It’s still unfolding, so it’d be premature to just say, ‘Hey, (this is) the plan today ... (but) we feel like (Lelito) has a chance to be that player,” Payton said in response to a question about the situation at center.

Payton, though, made it abundantly clear that he’d most likely be competing against more veteran competition, whether that’s a re-signed de la Puente or another free agent.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a player signed,” Payton also said. “Tim Lelito would be a guy that’s in the mix as someone competing for that opportunity, but ... we’ll see who it is he’s competing against.”

Lelito, listed on the roster as a backup guard/center, got experience on the offensive line in 2013 that will serve him well moving forward. After making the Saints as an undrafted rookie from Grand Valley State, he filled in at right guard for two games that four-time All-Pro Jahri Evans sat out because of injuries. The team won both games.

Taller uprights approved

After the NFL revealed it would outlaw dunking a football over the crossbar of a goalpost, the league Wednesday announced it approved a proposal to increase the height of the uprights by five feet.

The higher uprights are meant to make good/no good rulings easier on field-goal attempts that previously would have sailed over the top of the uprights. The New England Patriots formally suggested making them taller, and that was green-lighted at the owners meeting.

Such a rule change seemed imminent a day earlier when the NFL’s vice president of officiating, Dean Blandino, told “The Dan Patrick Show” that the league would penalize any players who dunk the ball over the crossbar.

Conventional thinking around the Ritz-Carlton was that taller uprights would be heavier and easier to knock askew with a dunk, resulting in delays to fix them.

Rich McKay, the NFL’s competition committee chairman and president of the Atlanta Falcons, touted that exact justification at a news conference where the extended uprights and the dunk ban were discussed.

Whatever the NFL’s reasoning is, it will be widely rejected in New Orleans.

Saints All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham made it a tradition to dunk over the crossbar on virtually all of his 44 career touchdown grabs (including the playoffs). Fans were even known to call the former college basketball player’s dunk maneuver “the Graham Slam.”

Lagniappe

Luke McCown, the second-string backup to Saints quarterback Drew Brees last year, agreed Wednesday to re-join New Orleans on a one-year deal, his agent and the team announced via Twitter. Terms were not immediately disclosed. ... Payton also said it is a matter of when — not if — the Saints will reach a long-term deal with Graham, whose rookie deal from 2010 has expired and is under a one-year franchise tag at the moment. ... Payton said effective pass rushers and cornerbacks are always at a premium in free agency and the draft. He also said the class of receivers in this year’s draft class is impressively deep. ... Payton said the portion of training camp that will be at The Greenbrier golf resort in West Virginia this year will run from the beginning of practice up to the second preseason game.