With the starting Center position still very much in flux, the New Orleans Saints could look to an in-house option to step into the fold. With last year's starter Brian de la Puente an unrestricted free agent who may or may not be back, the next man up philosophy may kick on, which could see 2nd year player Tim Lelito emerge as a legitimate option to man the middle of the Saints' Offensive Line.
Lelito is one of the more recent undrafted free agent diamonds in the rough unearthed by Ryan Pace, the Saints' player personnel guru. After not hearing his name called at any point during the 2013 draft, the former Grand Valley State standout was invited to Saints training camp, and performed well enough to earn a place on the team's 53 man roster. He was thrown into action early in the year, starting two games at Right Guard in place of injured pro-bowler Jahri Evans. Lelito played well, and proved his worth as a valuable and quite versatile reserve. Saints OL Tim Lelito
The fact that the Saints view Lelito as an option to replace de la Puente helps demonstrate his versatility. After spending his college career playing Guard exclusively, Lelito has earned practice reps behind de la Puente at Center, and the team apparently likes what it has seen. Despite no in-game reps at the position, the team appears set to give Lelito every chance to win the job in training camp, even if he is competing with a re-signed de la Puente or another free agent or draftee.
The Saints have done well in manning the Center spot since Jonathan Goodwin left to join the San Francisco 49ers following the 2011 season, the short Olin Kreutz experiment not withstanding. Following Kreutz's injury and sudden retirement early in the 2012 capaign, de la Puente emerged and made the position his own. Like Lelito, de la puente was a former undrafted free agent and after bouncing around early in his career, he landed on the Saints' practice squad before stepping in for Kreutz. Should Lelito emerge from camp as the favorite, the team will hope for similar results to what they got from de la Puente.
Lelito struggled in his first start against Arizona, where he found himself matched up with Darnell Dockett. However, in his next start at Atlanta, he showed marked improvement, taking on the unenviable task of filling in for the giant Evans. In the big picture, he performed well for an undrafted rookie who was thrust into a major role. He continued to perform at a reasonable level in practice and has earned the trust of the coaching staff heading into his second season as a pro. Lelito got plenty of on-job training in those practices as the Saints mixed in some zone-blocking schemes in addition to their man-blocking concepts.
While the Saints will surely add a player to provide competition with him over the next few months, Tim Lelito is a valuable player that Sean Payton knows can perform if called upon. It remains to be seen whether or not the team will be able to bring back Brian de la Puente, and if they can not do so, it is quite an asset to have a player that the staff feels is a viable option to call signals and snap the ball to Drew Brees. Lelito has already overcome some impressive odds, bouncing back from two major injuries that threatened his college career to making the Saints' roster after going undrafted. Should he win the job, it will simply go down as his next conquered challenge.