Position: Starting center
Scouting report: De la Puente could be in high demand this offseason as a proven starter who has played at a high level for the last three years. Like the rest of the Saints’ offensive line, he struggled at times during the first half of the 2013 season in both his run blocking and pass protection. But he finished very well during the second half of the year and in the playoffs -- returning to the consistent level we saw in 2011-12.
De la Puente isn’t a mauler up front, but he’s got a good combination of power and athleticism -- which has served him well in the Saints’ versatile offense that relies so much on pass protection and screen passes. And his experience as a signal-caller for such a sophisticated passing offense will only enhance his market value.
De la Puente certainly fit right in on a Saints offensive line filled with diamonds in the rough. He joined the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Cal in 2008, but he bounced around with San Francisco, Kansas City, Carolina and Seattle before landing on the Saints’ practice squad in 2010. He then earned the starting job over veteran Olin Kreutz early in the 2011 season.
Projection: This should sound like a broken record by now with the Saints’ free agents -- I think they’d love to have de la Puente back, but only if the price is right. And that might not work out for them.
I’m tempted to predict that de la Puente could earn a deal similar to the three-year, $10.9 million contract the San Francisco 49ers gave Jonathan Goodwin when they stole him away from New Orleans three years ago. But it’s possible a team will pay even more for such a proven commodity since quality centers are hard to find on the free-agent market. Most analysts rank de la Puente No. 2 in this year’s class behind Cleveland’s standout Alex Mack.
If the Saints do lose de la Puente, they could audition another undrafted free agent find in the role -- Tim Lelito, who showed promise as a backup guard last year. Or they might look to develop a future starter with an early draft pick. Or they could sign a more affordable veteran free agent in the short term -- maybe even Goodwin, who is now back on the market.