Obviously the Saints were prepared for this possibility -- and they seemingly chose to go in another direction. Terms of de la Puente’s one-year deal have not been announced yet, but it doesn’t appear that it would have cost too much for New Orleans to retain the 28-year-old free agent.
The Saints could go in a number of directions to fill the void. They’re very high on the potential of second-year pro Tim Lelito. But the undrafted free agent out of Grand Valley State is still raw. And so far, Lelito’s only NFL experience has come at the guard position in two spot starts last year.
The Saints could also draft a center in the early to middle rounds to add another candidate into the mix.
Or, if New Orleans wants to bring in a veteran for more security or competition, free agent Jonathan Goodwin is an obvious candidate. Goodwin, 35, was the Saints’ starter from 2008-2010, including a Pro Bowl season in 2009 en route to the Super Bowl. He spent the past three years as the San Francisco 49ers’ starter, though San Francisco has apparently decided to move on with a younger replacement.
Goodwin is no longer in his prime, but he has obviously proven to be a good fit in the Saints’ offense and locker room in the past, so he could be a great short-term solution.
Replacing de la Puente is a bit risky. He was a solid starter for most of the past three years. He was a huge part of their 2011 offensive explosion when he first came out of nowhere to beat out veteran Olin Kreutz for the job. And though he struggled early last season, he finished strong, helping the Saints show off a more prolific rushing attack in the playoffs.
Now the Saints need to find a new signal-caller in the middle of their line, while also continuing to develop second-year left tackle Terron Armstead.
However, the Saints should be able to absorb the loss of de la Puente since they have two Pro Bowl veteran guards in Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans. They also re-signed starting right tackle Zach Strief, keeping a good amount of stability on the line.
And it’s possible that Lelito or a draft pick could wind up developing into a long-term upgrade. Both coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis have spoken highly of Lelito this offseason.
“Tim Lelito would be a guy that’s gonna be in the mix, someone that will be competing for that opportunity,” Payton said two weeks ago. “We’ll see who he’s gonna be competing against. But he’s someone that we feel has a chance to be that player.”