With multiyear deal market scarce, de la Puente opted for new beginning

By Sunday, free-agent center Brian de la Puente accepted that the remaining market for contracts that were for more than one year among players at his position in the NFL were scarce.

It appeared to de la Puente’s camp that the team for whom he had started since 2011 — the Saints — had not budgeted for a multiyear free-agent deal at center, though a return to New Orleans had been an option throughout this offseason, an NFL source with knowledge of the situation said Monday.

However, if a one-year contract was what he was going to get, de la Puente preferred to not re-up with the Saints. He instead opted to sign with a team that has a position coach he trusts, that he believes can win, and is in a city that appeals to him, the source said.

That team was the Chicago Bears, with whom he agreed to a one-year deal Sunday that was reportedly for a minimum veteran salary, with $100,000 guaranteed and a $65,000 signing bonus.

“Brian felt it was better to get a fresh start,” the source said.

Of the reasons cited for de la Puente’s decision, the one that perhaps loomed largest was Aaron Kromer, who became the Bears’ offensive coordinator and offensive line coach last year. Kromer coached the Saints’ offensive line from 2009-12, and his starting center for the last two of those seasons was de la Puente.

Based on the metrics of the website Pro Football Focus, de la Puente’s best year was in 2012, when he had positive grades in pass, screen and run blocking after 16 starts. He had positive grades in pass and screen protection but a negative one in run blocking in 2011 (15 starts, including the playoffs) and in 2013 (18 starts, including the playoffs).

Yet the fact he had five holding penalties in 2013 — he had none of that variety in 2011 and three in 2012 — suggests he struggled in New Orleans after Kromer had moved on.

As for the other two factors, few would call Chicago — the third-largest city in the U.S. — dull. Furthermore, under first-year head coach Marc Trestman, the Bears were six points away from winning the NFC North and qualifying for the playoffs.

Only three teams in the NFL allowed fewer quarterback sacks last year than Chicago, and the Bears rushed for a respectable 114 yards per game, indicating the offensive line performed solidly in its first season with Kromer in command.

De la Puente nonetheless might face a tough battle for playing time with the Bears because Roberto Garza, who arrived in Chicago in 2005, has been entrenched as the starter at center since 2011. Kromer in February told the team’s website that it seemed to him Garza had the best year of his career last season.

De la Puente’s departure marks the second time a Saints offensive lineman left for the Bears in free agency in as many years. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod, a two-time Pro Bowler who was with the Saints from 2007 to 2012, signed with Chicago last offseason.

But the Saints offensive line remains in decent shape. They still count on the two guards (Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans) and two tackles (Terron Armstead and Zach Strief) who closed out the 2013 campaign as starters.

The man under de la Puente on the Saints’ depth chart last year, Tim Lelito, got experience by starting in two victories as a rookie in place of an injured Evans. Coach Sean Payton has said Lelito would have a chance to earn the starting job at center in training camp but fully expected he’d compete against somebody, whether it was de la Puente or a free agent.

Now that de la Puente’s out, the Saints might think about targeting 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.

On Monday, WVUE-TV in New Orleans reported the Saints were planning to host a visit with Florida State senior center Bryan Stork, projected to go in the fourth round of the upcoming draft. CBSSports.com compares him to de la Puente in a draft prospect profile of him.

Regardless, there was much discussion last year about how quarterback Drew Brees was sacked a career-high 37 times. But only eight teams gave up fewer sacks than the Saints did in 2013. And New Orleans averaged nearly 113 rushing yards per game over the last 10 contests of the season, including two games in the playoffs, showing the team’s offensive line had again been a dependable unit.