Brian de la Puente leaves Saints, signs with Bears

Free agent Brian de la Puente, the Saints’ starting center since 2011, will play in Chicago this season after agreeing to a one-year deal there Sunday, the Bears announced.

De la Puente’s deal is for the minimum veteran salary, with a $65,000 signing bonus and $100,000 guaranteed, according to a report from the Chicago Tribune.

The 6-foot-3, 306-pound de la Puente had been the first-string center for the Saints for 44 games over the past three seasons.

Despite de la Puente’s departure, the Saints were mostly able to keep the offensive line that closed out the 2013 season intact. Aside from de la Puente, right tackle Zach Strief hit free agency March 11, but he subsequently re-signed with the Saints (he agreed to a five-year deal March 17).

Flanking de la Puente, respectively, were left and right guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans, both Pro Bowlers last season. At left tackle was Terron Armstead, who’s entering his second year and took over the spot after Charles Brown (who signed with the New York Giants last week) was benched late in the season.

Under de la Puente on the Saints’ depth chart was Tim Lelito, who started in two games as a rookie in place an injured Evans. Coach Sean Payton recently said Lelito would have a chance to earn the starting center job at training camp but fully expected he’d compete against somebody — de la Puente was a possibility, and so were others in free agency.

The Saints could target Jonathan Goodwin, who was with the team from 2006-10, then left for San Francisco in free agency for three seasons and is back on the open market. He was a Pro Bowler the year the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV.

At the end of last season, de la Puente told reporters he would be open to returning to New Orleans.

“I really like this team — I like the guys, I like the locker room, I like the coaches, the front office,” he said. “I think that’s big in this business.”

But the Saints were far from alone in wanting de la Puente. There was reportedly interest in him from the Giants, Broncos, Patriots and Washington, as well.

Chicago is bringing him in despite the re-signing in February of free-agent-to-be Robert Garza, who’s been with the Bears since 2005 and has been their starting center since 2011.

Notably, Garza took over for Olin Kreutz, who went to the Saints in 2011 but retired midseason, making room for de la Puente in the starting lineup.

De la Puente reunites with left tackle Jermon Bushrod, a two-time Pro Bowler who was with the Saints from 2007-12 before leaving for Chicago in free agency last year; and Aaron Kromer, who was New Orleans’ O-line coach for four seasons prior to becoming the Bears’ offensive coordinator in 2013.