When they met with reporters at LSU’s Pro Day on Wednesday, top Saints officials admitted their team wasn’t without holes, but they felt they’ve accomplished most of what they wanted to this offseason.
They fielded questions about a couple of those holes — the position of center, where the starter since 2011 recently signed with another team; and All-Pro Jimmy Graham, who was handed a one-year, $7 million franchise tag at the end of February but does not yet have a long-term deal.
As has been their M.O. all offseason, Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton downplayed concerns about both.
“It’s business as usual,” Loomis said.
The Saints always accounted for the possibility that Brian de la Puente, the starter at center for the past 48 games (including the playoffs), might not return.
“When you have an unrestricted free agent, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Loomis said. “But we have candidates for that position, and we’ll have a good competition, and we’ll end up with a good player at that position.”
Payton, as he’s done previously, singled out one of those candidates: offensive lineman Tim Lelito, who was a rookie in 2013 and started two games at guard for the Saints in place of an injured Jahri Evans. New Orleans won both contests.
But he reiterated Lelito would face a competitor for the job at training camp.
“We see Tim as someone who has that potential,” Payton said. “But there will be competition at that position.”
The Saints had not ruled out a reunion with de la Puente until he agreed to a one-year contract with the Chicago Bears on Sunday, a deal that became official Tuesday. With him out the picture, they’ll still explore the free-agent market as well as the upcoming draft in May for a center.
One obvious prospect is Jonathan Goodwin, who was with the Saints 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.
Another is Florida State center Bryan Stork, who is projected to go around the fourth round of the draft, had set up a visit with New Orleans and had drawn comparisons to de la Puente.
“We’ll continue to obviously pay attention to this draft but also pay attention to any player that can improve our roster,” said Payton, who wasn’t asked about either Goodwin or Stork.
As for the Graham situation, “lots of us would rather have things done sooner rather than later, but it doesn’t always happen like that,” Loomis said. “We want to have Jimmy Graham on our team when training camp begins, and I am sure he wants to be with us.
“So we’ll just keep plugging away at the process. He has a great agent (in Jimmy Sexton). All his people ... know what they’re doing; so do we.”
The Saints tagged Graham as a tight end after he led the team with 1,215 receiving yards and the NFL with 16 touchdown catches in 2013, the last season on the rookie deal he accepted from New Orleans in 2010.
But Graham spent most of his time last year lining up out wide for the Saints. A franchise tag for a wide receiver is worth $5 million more, and it’s believed he could file a grievance through the players association to be classified as a wideout, given the massive boost in pay that could result in, depending on the decision of a third party.
Yet Graham might not even play under the tag if he and the Saints can agree on a long-term deal to replace the one he accepted from New Orleans as a rookie in 2010.
Loomis restated his desire for that long-term deal Wednesday but did not commit to a firm timetable about when one might be reached.
Correction: This post incorrectly indicated the deadline for Graham to file a grievance was April 22. That was based off a Pro Football Talk report that pegged that day as the deadline for Graham to file the grievance and stated it was expected Graham and the Saints would consummate a long-term deal before then. On Thursday, Pro Football Talk said it misunderstood the league’s collective bargaining agreement and that April 22 (50 days after Graham was tagged) was irrelevant. Graham actually has three years to challenge his classification as a tight end under the franchise tag. The Saints have indicated they’re willing to wait until July before closing out a deal for Graham.