Tim Lelito starter now at center, but to face competition

Second-year pro Tim Lelito enters Saints minicamp this summer as the projected starting center, a job vacated after the 2013 season by Brian de la Puente’s move to the Chicago Bears.

Still, General Manager Mickey Loomis said Monday morning he’s aiming for an open competition at training camp.

“We feel really good about Tim, based on what we saw a year ago,” Loomis said. “And yet, he’s going to have to earn that job.”

That’s part of the problem.”

Lelito’s biggest deficiency must be solved with first-team reps during minicamp and training camp, as well as early in the preseason.

So far, his biggest impact on game days has occurred on special teams and two unexpected starts.

The 6-foot-4, 315-pound Lelito filled in for Jahri Evans at right guard during wins against Arizona (Sept. 22) and at Atlanta (Nov. 21).

His brief efforts were enough for Loomis to see Lelito’s a “tough, intelligent, athletic player,” as he described him before Monday’s start of the 23rd Annual Saints Hall of Fame Celebrity Golf Classic, held at Chateau Golf and Country Club in Kenner.

Had they not had Lelito, Loomis said the Saints “would have made a stronger push to bring somebody in at that position.”

So far, the only known push for a center was a free agent visit with former Saints starter Jonathan Goodwin (2008-10) and Matthew Armstrong, an undrafted rookie free agent signed last week.

Armstrong played with Lelito in college at Division II Grand Valley State.

While the Saints offense enjoyed plenty of success last season with its passing game, the running attack struggled often, with the primary blame aimed at the offensive line.

The Saints return four starters on the line, including right tackle Zach Strief, who re-signed during the offseason, and second-year pro Terron Armstead, who took over for Charles Brown at left tackle at St. Louis (Dec. 22).

The Saints have said they are not opposed to a rookie starting at center because of Drew Brees’ ability to make many of the calls at the line of scrimmage.

“Drew kind of runs the show for us,” Strief said. “There are some places where the center is responsible for a lot more information than ours is. ... If not, I’m sure they’ll bring in a real good veteran for us and we’ll be fine.”

Center is expected to be one of the few position battles at training camp.

Last week at Saints rookie minicamp, Armstrong didn’t sound like a player ready to challenge for a higher spot on the depth chart.

“I’m not here to compete for a starting spot,” Armstrong said. “I’m just trying to make the team.”

The Saints are looking for more out of Lelito.

“He needs time on the job,” Loomis said. “That’s his deficiency right now. Just time on task.”