New Orleans Saints: tim lelito

NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints missed their chance to finish undefeated in the preseason for the first time in franchise history, losing 22-13 to the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Obviously that doesn’t matter a lick, considering quarterback Drew Brees and about a dozen other starters sat out the final exhibition game.

So what did matter? I can’t say that any jobs were obviously won or lost on Thursday night. But here are the clues that stood out most:
  • I still have no idea who’s going to win the kicking job. Derek Dimke got all of the work Thursday, including kickoffs. However, he missed a 54-yard attempt wide right that might have helped him lock down the job. Fortunately, a roughing penalty was called, giving him a second chance at a 49-yard attempt, which he made. … That’s kind of how it has been for both Dimke and veteran Shayne Graham all summer -- mostly good, some bad, nothing definitive.
  • Luke McCown sure looks like the front-runner for the backup quarterback job. He started again (McCown played ahead of Ryan Griffin in all four exhibition games) and led the Saints to a touchdown on the opening drive, going 4-for-4 for 29 yards, including a 3-yard TD strike to Travaris Cadet. Griffin played the rest of the game after that first drive, but he was pretty ordinary, finishing 11-of-21 for 126 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions.
  • Receiver Joe Morgan has been getting better every week and might have moved ahead of both Nick Toon and Robert Meachem as the fourth receiver. Morgan started and caught four passes for 33 yards (one of them a great catch down the field). I would say Meachem’s job appears to be in jeopardy, as he has fallen behind those other guys in the playing-time pecking order. But sure enough, Meachem made a fantastic 52-yard catch Thursday to help remind the Saints why they’ve always liked him so much.
  • I’m almost positive Jonathan Goodwin has won the starting center job over Tim Lelito, as Goodwin got the night off, along with many other veteran starters.
  • If anyone could have possibly lost a starting job Thursday, it might be cornerback Patrick Robinson. The Ravens picked on him quite a bit, chipping away with several mid-range gains. Baltimore virtually ignored fellow veteran Champ Bailey on the other side of the field. I think that battle will remain fluid, but it’s possible Bailey could inspire more confidence heading into Week 1.
  • Of the undrafted rookies vying for roster spots, outside linebacker Kasim Edebali continued to look the part. He started in place of Junior Galette and was in on at least three of the starting special-teams units. Edebali didn’t have any dramatic highs or lows, but it’s obvious the Saints are giving him a serious look. … Meanwhile, safety Pierre Warren made two great plays with an open-field run stop and a leaping interception on an overthrown deep ball. But he wasn’t as involved on special teams, so he’s a slightly longer shot to crack the roster. … Cornerback Brian Dixon had a nice pass break-up and tight end Nic Jacobs was in with the starters at times. But they’re also long shots.

Saints Camp Report: Day 22

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
METAIRIE, La. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • Saints kickers Shayne Graham and Derek Dimke both stumbled a bit during a windy practice Tuesday. Based on the unofficial consensus from media members, they each missed two field goals out of an estimated seven attempts. Neither kicker has been consistent enough to lock down the job this summer, but they’ve both been solid in preseason games (the only miss coming on Graham’s missed 33-yard extra point in Week 1). And coach Sean Payton continued to speak highly of both contenders. “I say this: Both of them are going to be kicking this season. I think other teams see us as a place that has a kicker possibly that is good enough to play for them,” Payton said.
  • Another position battle seems close to being decided. Center Jonathan Goodwin has continued to take snaps with the starters in practice all week after starting each of the past two preseason games. Goodwin has played very well this summer, calling it the best camp he’s had in 13 years. But Payton hasn’t conceded anything yet in Goodwin’s battle against second-year pro Tim Lelito. “We will see where that’s headed, but we are getting pretty good consistent play (from both), and that is encouraging,” Payton said Monday.
  • Cornerback Patrick Robinson had a nice practice with a pass breakup in the end zone during team drills and a stripped ball in 7-on-7, among other highlights. Payton revealed that it was a hamstring injury that had limited Robinson earlier in camp. But he said he’s encouraged by his progress. Robinson certainly looks like the front-runner to start opposite Keenan Lewis in Week 1 -- though veteran Champ Bailey has also looked solid in his return from a foot injury.
  • The offensive standout during Tuesday’s practice was probably receiver Joe Morgan, who made a diving catch of a deep pass from Drew Brees that hung up in the air during a two-minute drill late in practice. Morgan sure looks like he has a good beat on a roster spot this year and could be on the field in Week 1 -- especially if Kenny Stills remains out with a quad injury.
  • Stills, safeties Rafael Bush and Marcus Ball, linebacker Khairi Fortt and fullback Erik Lorig did not participate in Tuesday’s practice, though Ball made his first appearance in nearly a week as he watched from the sideline. Cornerback Trevin Wade was limited. Receiver Marques Colston appeared to wave himself out during a set of team drills late in practice, then he chatted with a trainer before watching the rest of practice. He didn’t appear to be dealing with anything significant, though.
  • That’s a wrap for training camp. The Saints are scheduled to hold a walk-through that’s closed to the media Wednesday before playing their final preseason game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Thursday night against the Baltimore Ravens.
Jonathan Goodwin said he knows it's probably hard for people to believe. But, the New Orleans Saints center said, "In 13 years, I think this was my best training camp."

Goodwin said that goes for how he's been performing as well as how healthy he's feeling and how quickly his body is still moving at age 35.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Goodwin
Gerald Herbert/AP PhotoEntering his 13th pro season, Jonathan Goodwin is fighting to start at center for the Saints.
Clearly, Goodwin has been revitalized by his return to the Saints after spending the past three seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.

He also wasn't ready to give up his NFL career just yet.

Although Goodwin admitted toward the end of last year that the possibility of retirement had crossed his mind, he knew he wasn't ready to make the full-time switch to the rec-league softball and kickball teams he plays on during the offseason.

"Honestly, playing in those (rec leagues), I realized I was still moving well and still could do it," said Goodwin, who just had to be patient enough to wait for the Saints to sign him after June 1 -- the deadline for free-agent signings to no longer count against a team's compensatory draft-pick formula.

"In this day and age, being a 35-year-old free agent, you don't know what's gonna happen. So I felt like I still could play, but I didn't know if I'd get the chance to play," said Goodwin, who always had New Orleans ranked as his top destination.

"I think being able to come back here and play here in a place that I love, I think it gave me a lot of extra motivation," Goodwin said. "That's turned out to be a valuable thing for me so far."

The battle between Goodwin and second-year pro Tim Lelito for the Saints' starting center job is still too close to call.

But based on Saturday's performance against the Indianapolis Colts, Goodwin might have the slight edge.

Goodwin started for the second straight preseason game, and he played extremely well. Among other examples, he took out two defenders to help open a hole for Mark Ingram's 17-yard run in the first quarter.

And Goodwin got way down the field to take out a defensive back, helping Pierre Thomas gain an extra 10-15 yards on his 26-yard screen pass in the first quarter.

"You know, Pierre does a good job setting it up. And I was able to read Jah's (Jahri Evans) block, and I could tell he was gonna kind of take two guys out," Goodwin said. "So I turned it up and tried to show off the wheels."

Saints quarterback Drew Brees said he hasn't noticed any drop-off in Goodwin, who was first with the Saints from 2006-10, making a Pro Bowl during the Saints' 2009 Super Bowl season.

"Goody is Goody," Brees said. "I think he's had a great camp. I think also just maybe the way his body feels, he looks really good and he's moving really well. He's strong and powerful.

"Tim Lelito has done a great job, too. I don't know how that's going to shake out, but both of those guys are certainly very capable and will be key contributors."
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- The New Orleans Saints practiced in steady rain for the first time during training camp Monday. And they didn’t handle it well.

At least six center-quarterback exchanges were botched (with quarterbacks Luke McCown and Ryan Griffin and centers Tim Lelito and Jonathan Goodwin all guilty multiple times). There were also a handful of dropped balls. And coach Sean Payton was especially upset with the overall energy and effort level on a day that was filled with some physical interior running sessions.

"Overall I thought it was kinda sloppy. A lot of balls on the ground. Too much for my liking, or our liking," Payton said. "I thought the short-yardage period was the same way. It was just OK. So probably one of our more flat practices since we’ve been up here. The weather’s not that bad. We’re gonna play in weather like this ..."

When asked after practice if the run drills were "live" -- meaning full contact -- Payton said, "It was live. ... It’s not a good sign when you have to ask if it was live."

The Saints don’t have an indoor practice facility at their new training camp site in West Virginia. So far, they have been lucky that weather conditions have been ideal for more than two weeks. But Payton said he was glad that the Saints had at least one practice session where they could experience the kind of elements they might face on the road.

Obviously the Saints’ uneven road performances were a huge storyline last season. And it has been a big point of emphasis this offseason -- though it didn’t show on Monday.

"(It’s good to have some days like this) because you try to have a wet ball drill day, and it’s not the same. This is more realistic," Payton said. “So more than anything else you want to see how they respond. And, look, we’ve gotta do a better job as coaches. That’s on me and everyone else as well. It was good for us to see it and recognize that we’ve gotta make improvements. ...

"It does affect how you get ready to practice tomorrow. We’ve gotta do a better job, we’ve gotta have a little bit more sense of urgency, and I’m sure we will. We might repeat a drill or two."

The quarterback-center exchanges were the most blatant and most disturbing errors. They have crept up a few times throughout camp with all of the centers and quarterbacks. But it was almost stunning how much they piled up during one set of team drills Monday.

McCown said the quarterbacks and centers spent extra time after practice working on the snaps with no gloves and no towels to get used to it.

"There’s no excuse for it," McCown said. "That falls on veteran leadership of the team, of the offense, specifically myself, Ryan, the quarterbacks and the centers, and making sure we get that handled. There’s gonna be situations where we play in weather like this, and we’ve got to be able to handle that. ...

"And it takes some getting used to, but you’ve gotta be able to do it. So it was inconsistent today and wasn’t good enough today. And I hope it rains tomorrow so we can be better."

Players on offense and defense alike agreed with Payton that Monday’s practice wasn’t good enough. They all felt that same flat energy level -- which can be common at this stage of training camp, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.

"You can feel Sean when he’s kinda aggravated. You can just see it in his face," Saints cornerback Corey White said. "And you don’t want that face, so you’ve gotta pick it up."

One of the few players who seemed unfazed by the conditions was rookie receiver Brandin Cooks, who hasn’t been fazed by anything yet. Cooks caught every ball thrown his way, including a tough low ball near the sideline. And once again, he made a linebacker whiff with a sharp cut that turned into a long gain.

As I joked earlier, we’re still looking for Cooks' Kryptonite, but we haven’t found it yet.

"I played in Corvallis," the former Oregon State star said with a laugh. "It rains like this all the time, so I was kind of used to it. These guys from down South don’t always see this."
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- More than a week into training camp, the New Orleans Saints' battle for the starting center job is still too close to call.

Both 13-year veteran Jonathan Goodwin and second-year pro Tim Lelito have stood out a handful of times in full-team and individual drills as they’ve taken turns working with the first-string offense. And we’ve seen a few fumbled center-quarterback exchanges from each of them.

It’s a difficult position to judge with the naked eye from the sideline in practice. Even coach Sean Payton said after Saturday’s scrimmage that the only way to truly evaluate an offensive lineman is to go back and look at the tape (not to mention knowing the assignments).

I did notice Lelito making two very nice blocks on two of the Saints’ big plays during Saturday’s scrimmage. But before that, Goodwin had stood out to me a couple more times in some of the Saints’ physical run drills.

And it’s clear from talking to Saints coaches and players that Goodwin is very much in the competition.

When asked what it is about Goodwin that will make it hard for Lelito to beat him out, Payton said, “He is consistent and he obviously knows exactly where to go. He will go six, seven weeks without a mental error. That is the type of player he is.”

Guard Jahri Evans said he’s seen the same Goodwin who was around from 2006-2010 before he left to spend three years with the San Francisco 49ers.

Ultimately, though, Evans agreed with Payton that the “eye in the sky” will be the ultimate judge for both players.

“Tim’s getting better. There’s a lot going on for Tim. It’s the first time he’s played center, especially at this level. The one thing I can say is that he’s getting better,” Evans said. “Goody is a seasoned vet, he’s a pro. He’s played 13-14 years in this league and Goody is just like we all remember Goody. We jell well together, we know where each other is going to be. We have those games and those reps with each other.

“I think both guys are working hard, and the thing is that the eye in the sky doesn’t lie. Go back to the film and see who’s the better guy.”

Saints Camp Report: Day 8

August, 2, 2014
Aug 2
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • The Saints weren’t keeping score in Saturday’s scrimmage. But it was a clear victory for the offense – especially considering Drew Brees was sidelined by an oblique strain. Backup QB Ryan Griffin was particularly impressive, but he and Luke McCown both had some highlights. I already broke down the big performances from receiver Brandin Cooks and tight end Jimmy Graham. The Saints’ run game was equally productive. And the defense was even flagged for 12 men on the field at one point, which led to some very vocal disappointment from coordinator Rob Ryan. ... There were a few high points for the defense (some Keenan Lewis pass breakups in the red zone, safety Marcus Ball's interception and Junior Galette's pass rushes). But they still walked away with a salty taste in their mouths. “I think the No. 1 thing for us as a defense is that you don’t want to give up big plays, and you’ve got to tackle. We gave up a few big plays and didn’t tackle too well,” linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “You’re going to get that in your first live tackling and stuff, but as a defense we’ve just got to get better.”
  • I was especially impressed with the Saints’ run game, which has looked strong throughout the first eight days of camp. Mark Ingram had several nice runs, including a sharp cutback for a touchdown between blockers Tim Lelito and Terron Armstead (both of whom stood out more than once). Khiry Robinson showed some great burst during a long gain on a screen pass. And Travaris Cadet tore up the third-string defense a couple times.
  • There hasn’t been much buzz around Ball this summer since he has been running with the third string. And Galette said he knew Ball was disappointed by his start in OTAs. But the former Canadian Football League standout stepped up in his biggest audition yet. He showed great instincts on the interception, shooting in front of Cooks to pick off McCown. He also had a sack on a blitz and a nice run stop. Ball even got the crowd involved, turning and yelling to the “Who Dats!” “The one thing I would say based on the film study was his ability to tackle in the open field, and he has really good football instincts. The interception he had today was a good example of that,” said head coach Sean Payton, who credited player personnel director Ryan Pace and the scouts. “The ball kind of finds him, and it did a lot when we watched the tape. He was very, very productive in the CFL, and I think he has a chance to be a real good special teams player.”
  • There was an intense moment when Kenny Vaccaro tackled Graham from behind by grabbing him up near the shoulder pads. It was nearly a horse-collar tackle, and Graham wasn’t happy. He shoved Vaccaro after the play. … Vaccaro was obviously fired up for the live scrimmage. He also laid a big hit on running back Robinson at one point.
  • The Saints will be off the field until Monday at 4 p.m. ET. Players will have Sunday off, then they’ll come back and watch film of the scrimmage Monday before weightlifting, meetings and the afternoon practice.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- On the field, the competition between Jonathan Goodwin and Tim Lelito for the New Orleans Saints' starting center job is as intense as it gets. But Lelito insisted that’s not the case off the field.

The second-year pro said the 13-year veteran Goodwin has actually taken both Lelito and rookie center Matt Armstrong “under his wing” since the Saints signed Goodwin to compete for the job in June.

“It’s definitely a competition. We’re both going for the starting center position. But it’s nice to have a guy that will actually work with you and teach you things,” said Lelito, who said they’ll break down things over lunch or dinner, as well as the meeting rooms. “He’s not going to dog-cuss me or [say], ‘I’m not saying anything to you because you’re my competition.’ We’re both trying to make this team better.”

However, when asked if he has returned the favor by teaching Goodwin anything, Lelito said, “I don’t know if you can teach someone who has been in the league for 13 years something. That’s kind of hard to do.”

The competition is too close to call for now as they’ve taken turns working with the first-string offense so far during camp.

Goodwin has probably stood out a little more during one-on-one pass-rush drills the last couple of days. But both players would quickly point out that the center position is as much mental as it physical -- maybe more so, since the center calls out blocking assignments before the snap.

In one sense, this summer is a big change for Lelito, who cracked the roster as a backup last year after being undrafted out of Grand Valley State.

But Lelito said it’s also very much the same.

“I still come into it the same way mentally, as, ‘This is do or die today,’” Lelito said. “I don’t think you can take any plays off or take days off or anything like that, especially when you’re going for the starting center position.”
A position-by-position look at the New Orleans Saints' 90-man roster heading into the start of training camp. Players report on Thursday and will hold their first practice Friday at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.

Current depth chart:

Left tackle: Terron Armstead, Bryce Harris, Tavon Rooks

Right tackle: Zach Strief, Ty Nsekhe, Thomas Welch

Left guard: Ben Grubbs, Senio Kelemete, Manase Foketi

Right guard: Jahri Evans, Marcel Jones, Jason Weaver

Center: Tim Lelito, Jonathan Goodwin, Matt Armstrong

Gone from last year: C Brian de la Puente, OT Charles Brown

Key roster battles: The main focus here will be on the center position, which is one of a very few actual wide-open battles for a full-time starting job. Perhaps Lelito's youth and potential give him a slight edge over Goodwin, but I believe it’s awfully close to 50-50 heading into the start of camp. Chances are, they will both make the team since either one could be used as a reliable “swing” backup at guard and center.

The other four starting jobs are locked down. And I think Harris is also cemented as the top backup at offensive tackle -- especially now that he is being cross-trained at left tackle.

Beyond those top seven, it’s a wide-open battle for one or two more spots on the 53-man roster. The rookie Rooks probably has the best chance since the Saints invested a sixth-round pick in him and like his growth potential. But I’m not sure how significant his recent injury is since the Saints haven’t revealed any details.

Fellow rookie Armstrong has potential to stick since he was one of the Saints’ most highly rated undrafted pickups. And the Saints have always liked Jones’ potential since drafting him in the seventh round in 2012. But this is probably a make-or-break camp for Jones, who hasn’t cracked the 53-man roster yet. Maybe the switch from tackle to guard will help prove his versatility and value.

Otherwise, the Saints have a handful of veterans with some limited NFL experience that they brought in this offseason as alternative options.
METAIRIE, La. -- Jonathan Goodwin said leaving the New Orleans Saints in 2011 was one of the toughest decisions he ever made.

Coming back this week was one of the easiest.

“I’ve always known that I wanted to retire a Saint, so I guess this makes it a lot easier,” said Goodwin, who re-signed with the Saints on Tuesday after previously playing in New Orleans from 2006-10. “I look at New Orleans as my second home. This is the place where my career turned around and I had the most success.”

[+] EnlargeJonathan Goodwin
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsAfter three seasons in San Francisco, Jonathan Goodwin returned to New Orleans this offseason on a one-year deal.
Goodwin, 35, spent the past three years with the San Francisco 49ers after leaving for a more lucrative offer in 2011. He doesn’t regret his time spent in San Francisco -- he started all three years for a team that reached a Super Bowl and two NFC Championship Games.

But he admitted that it was a grueling choice to leave at the time.

“That day I changed my mind like twice. I told the 49ers I was coming, then I told 'em I wasn't coming, then I told 'em I was coming for real,” Goodwin said. “So it was a rough decision for me and my family. But I felt like I had some things I couldn't pass up.”

This year, however, San Francisco decided to move on to younger alternatives. And the Saints were the team with the opening after they decided not to re-sign starter Brian De La Puente in free agency.

The Saints had been in talks with Goodwin since April, but coach Sean Payton confirmed that they waited until after June 1 to finish the deal since it could potentially affect their ability to earn a compensatory draft pick next year.

Goodwin will now compete with second-year pro Tim Lelito for the starting job.

Lelito was still working with the first string during Thursday's organized team activities (OTAs) session that was open to the media. But Payton insisted that no one has an advantage.

“Both those guys are going to have a good shot of playing for us,” Payton said. “And listen, that’s the way it is, it’s normal. You’re never just given a position. Tim’s done a lot of good things, we’re excited about his progress. And a guy like Jonathan, who obviously has played a long time. I think it’ll make both of 'em better.”

Goodwin said he won’t have any problem competing with Lelito and serving as a mentor to him at the same time. He said that’s what his relationship was like with young center Daniel Kilgore in San Francisco.

“You know, in this league, when a younger guy can play, that’s who teams tend to go with. But guys did it for me, so I have no problem doing it with Tim,” Goodwin said. “We’ve already had conversations, and I think we’ve already started building a relationship.

“Naturally, I wouldn’t be out here if I didn’t want to play, so I still want to play. We’re both going to fight each other tooth and nail. So either way, I think this team will be straight at the center position.”

Goodwin said he took a couple of days after last season to think about whether he wanted to keep playing at his age. And he said he felt like he could still play and the game was still fun. And if the right opportunity presented itself, he would pursue it -- which obviously turned out to be the case.

Although Goodwin clearly isn’t in his prime anymore, observers felt like he continued to be a serviceable starter for the 49ers last year. And Goodwin stills feels he is playing at a high enough level.

“I want to still play well. I don’t want to just be out here just to say I’m an NFL player,” Goodwin said. “I’ve got a lot of pride, and you know, I saw my grade sheets that Coach [Mike] Solari gave me every week last year. So I know I played well. Definitely not perfect. But I know I still can hold down the fort as a center in this league.”

Veteran teammate Zach Strief isn’t playing favorites between Goodwin and Lelito. But he said he’s definitely glad to have Goodwin in the mix.

Strief said after De La Puente signed with the Chicago Bears, he was texting Goodwin about 10 seconds later.

“You lose a friend (De La Puente) and you want a friend to come here,” Strief said. “I think on top of that, I think he’s a good football player. He’s proven that. He’s been successful in San Francisco. It’s good to have as many good players in the room as you can.”
The New Orleans Saints have entered the next stage of offseason workouts with the start of organized team activities (OTAs) on Tuesday. Over the next four weeks, they’re scheduled to have a total of 15 full-team practice sessions during OTAs and minicamp.

The media will have access to eight of those sessions, starting with Thursday’s OTA practice. Here’s a breakdown of the early camp battles I’m most interested in watching on offense:

1. Fourth/fifth wide receivers: This might not be the most important camp battle on offense. But it’s the most jam-packed with bona fide candidates. And it’s always one of the most compelling position groups to watch at this time of year when players aren’t in pads or doing any live-contact drills yet.

Marques Colston, Kenny Stills and Brandin Cooks are all locked into the roster (though we unfortunately won’t get to see Cooks in action until mid-June because of NFL rules regarding rookies whose colleges are still in session).

That leaves Robert Meachem, Nick Toon, Joe Morgan, Andy Tanner, Brandon Coleman and others fighting for two to three roster spots. I broke down the battle at length recently, when I gave a slight edge to Toon for the fourth spot.

2. Center: This is the most important job still up for grabs, but it will more difficult to evaluate at this stage of the offseason. For now, second-year pro Tim Lelito should take all of the snaps with the first unit, which is huge for his growth and development as he works on his timing and play recognition, etc., with the first-string unit.

I still expect veteran Jonathan Goodwin to be signed at some point for competition/insurance. And I’m curious to see how the Saints rotate the snaps among the backups. Undrafted rookie Matt Armstrong is the most experienced option at center. But the Saints will also want to cross-train guys fighting for the backup guard/center job like Senio Kelemete and Mike Golic Jr.

3. Punt returner: I’ll lump this in with the offense since the Saints need a playmaker to emerge here after parting ways with both Darren Sproles and Lance Moore. The leading contenders for the job are probably Cooks, running back Travaris Cadet and Morgan. I’m curious to see if any of the young newcomers get long looks here, too.

Both Cadet and Morgan have excelled as punt returners in the preseason in recent years, but neither has gotten much experience there in the regular season. Cadet is also the front-runner for the leading kickoff return job, which he has handled well in the regular season in small doses over the past two years.

4. Backup quarterback: Another one that’s both compelling and easy to monitor. Second-year pro Ryan Griffin will try to prove he’s taken enough of a Year 2 leap to supplant longtime NFL backup Luke McCown this summer. That battle won’t truly play out until the preseason games, though.

And let’s not rule out this year’s undrafted rookie Logan Kilgore, who will try to beat out Griffin for the role of future developmental prospect.

5. Backup left tackle: Frankly, I have no idea who will line up as the second-string left tackle behind Terron Armstead -- which speaks to Armstead’s impressive job security. The Saints have an experienced backup swing tackle in Bryce Harris, whom they trust. But Harris projects as more of a right tackle. The same goes for young roster hopefuls such as Marcel Jones and Tavon Rooks.

I’m less certain of how the Saints project some of the new guys they’ve signed this offseason, including guys with a bit of NFL experience (Thomas Welch, Ty Nsekhe and Manase Foketi).
METAIRIE, La. -- The optimist and pessimist could have a pretty good debate over the state of the New Orleans Saints’ offensive line.

True, it was a shakier-than-usual season for the Saints up front in 2013, with some early-season struggles in the middle of the line and some late-season struggles at left tackle.

However, the Saints’ line was playing its best at the end of the year, especially in the playoffs, offering some glimpses of hope for 2014.

Not only are the Saints counting on second-year left tackle Terron Armstead and center Tim Lelito to make big leaps in their sophomore seasons, but they’re also encouraged that longtime veterans like right tackle Zach Strief and Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs showed steady improvement as the season went along.

“I think it got better, and I think there’s still plenty to work on,” Strief said last week, in advance of the start of OTAs today. “I think more than anything, we really got comfortable with what we were good at. The running plays that we were good at, we really just found 10 ways to run the same play, and that was real effective for us. And I think we’ll take some of that into next year knowing what this group in particular is good at.

“Not the group of (former Saints Jermon) Bushrod and Carl Nicks. Not the groups that we used to have that were good at certain things. Now there’s a new group, and we’re good at some other types of things. And I think we’re kind of figuring that out.”

New Orleans’ management clearly leans toward that optimistic approach, since the Saints didn’t feel pressured into upgrading anywhere on the offensive line this year. No free agent signings, no draft picks until Round 6. They even let starting center Brian de la Puente get away in free agency without putting up a fight.

There’s still a good chance the Saints will bring back former starter Jonathan Goodwin to compete for that center job. But for now, they’re showing faith in Lelito.

And they’re certainly showing faith in Armstead, who is essentially written in ink as the starting left tackle at this point. The third-round pick from Arkansas-Pine Bluff showed enough over the final four games of last season (including the playoffs) to help cement his status.

“I see the coaches have some confidence in me, which is huge to know that I’m their guy. But I still have a lot to prove, a lot to work on, which I’ve been doing all this offseason,” Armstead said last week.

So far, that’s been mostly limited to conditioning, studying film and studying the playbook. But Armstead said the linemen have worked together on some timing and footwork during simulated snaps.

When asked if he’s feeling more nerves because the expectations of him are higher this year, Armstead said, “I don’t think so, because I have complete confidence in myself. So I just keep working on my game, and I’ll be ready.”

As Strief pointed out, both Armstead and Lelito were “humbled” during their first starts last season (Lelito against Arizona early in the year and Armstead at Carolina in week 16). But both players showed a lot by bouncing back. And Strief said he thinks those experiences will only enhance their drive.

“The first game was bumpy for (Armstead), but I knew what he had,” said Grubbs, who will be planted between two relative newcomers this year at the left guard spot. “Just seeing him at practice when he first got to the Saints, I was like, ‘That guy is going to be a great player.’ When he got the opportunity, he took advantage of it. In the last three games he played lights out.”

Saints offseason wrap-up

May, 22, 2014
May 22
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With free agency and the draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple of months away, we assess the New Orleans Saints' offseason moves.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
Gregory Payan/AP PhotoThe New Orleans Saints are counting on first-round draft pick Brandin Cooks to help keep the passing game rolling in 2014.
Best move: It's a tie for the Saints' big, bold moves in both free agency (signing safety Jairus Byrd) and the draft (trading up for receiver Brandin Cooks). The Saints had a Super Bowl-caliber team already. But they went all in to add a dynamic playmaker on each side of the ball. Byrd should help in the one area the defense was lacking last year -- forcing turnovers. And Cooks gives the offense another young, fast weapon after New Orleans parted ways with veterans Darren Sproles and Lance Moore this offseason.

Riskiest move: The Saints decided to let starting center Brian de la Puente leave in free agency without putting up a fight -- even though they don't have a proven backup in place. They're high on the potential of second-year pro Tim Lelito, but he's raw, and his only NFL experience came at guard last year. There's also a strong chance they'll re-sign former starter Jonathan Goodwin. But it's still a new question mark on an offensive line where they'll also be counting on second-year left tackle Terron Armstead.

Most surprising move: Trading Sproles to the Philadelphia Eagles was more unexpected than the Saints' other decisions to part ways with several aging veterans this offseason. It made some sense because the Saints are loaded with talent at running back and Sproles had started to slow down a bit in recent years. But Sproles was still a huge impact weapon as both a runner and a receiver -- the kind of player defenses had to devise a game plan around. Now he's playing for another high-octane offense in the NFC.

Super secondary: Over the past two years, New Orleans has undergone a radical makeover in the secondary, which now looks like the NFL's most formidable unit east of Seattle. Last year, free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro were two of the biggest reasons for the Saints' remarkable turnaround under new coordinator Rob Ryan. Then they added Byrd and future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey in free agency this offseason, followed by the addition of a big Richard Sherman clone in the second round of the draft in Nebraska cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste.
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A position-by-position look at the New Orleans Saints' draft needs, ranked in order of importance from 1-12:

Current depth chart:
G Jahri Evans, signed through 2016
G Ben Grubbs, signed through 2016
C/G Tim Lelito, scheduled to become restricted free agent in 2016
G Senio Kelemete, signed through 2014

Draft possibilities: A strong argument could be made that this is the Saints’ No. 1 need since they don’t have a single player on the roster who has played center in the NFL. The Saints are high on Lelito’s potential -- but that’s all it is for now. An undrafted rookie last year, Lelito only played center during the preseason and only started two games at guard. The Saints will eventually need to bring in competition for him, whether it’s through the draft or free agency (veteran Jonathan Goodwin remains an option).

Plus, even if Lelito does wind up winning the starting center job, the Saints need to add some young depth here. They would need a new backup center/guard “swingman” to replace Lelito in that role. And it wouldn’t hurt to develop a future starter capable of replacing Grubbs or Evans down the road if the Saints decide their price tags get too high.

So why didn’t I rank this position higher? Two reasons. 1. There aren’t many centers rated as first-round prospects, so the Saints might look to fill this spot later in the draft. 2. Teams don’t rotate their offensive linemen in and out of the mix, so a rookie guard might not even see the field for a couple years.

If the Saints do fill this spot in Round 1, it will probably be with USC center Marcus Martin, who has generated some recent buzz as a possible first-rounder. Colorado State center Weston Richburg is projected as more of a second-rounder.

UCLA guard Xavier Su'a-Filo and Nevada guard Joel Bitonio are two other interior lineman who could potentially go in Round 1.

Previous entries:

No. 12 Kicker/punter

No. 11 Quarterback

No. 10 Running back/fullback

No. 9 Safety

No. 8 Defensive line

No. 7 Tight end

No. 6 Offensive tackle

No. 5 Inside linebacker

No. 4 Outside linebacker
They say it takes three years to properly rate a draft class. But it’s clear that the New Orleans Saints are already sold on many of last year’s rookies.

Safety Kenny Vaccaro (first round), left tackle Terron Armstead (third round), nose tackle John Jenkins (third round), receiver Kenny Stills (fifth round), running back Khiry Robinson (undrafted) and center Tim Lelito (undrafted) are all expected to play major roles this season, among others.

In fact, the Saints’ high hopes for those players helped inspire a lot of the dramatic moves they made this offseason:
  • They traded away running back Darren Sproles, in part because they want to get Robinson more touches.
  • They released receiver Lance Moore, in part because Stills already supplanted him as a starter last season.
  • They didn’t re-sign left tackle Charles Brown or spend big on any other veteran left tackles because of their faith in Armstead.
  • They let center Brian de la Puente leave in free agency, in part because of their belief in Lelito’s potential.
  • They released safety Roman Harper and let safety Malcolm Jenkins get away in free agency, in part because of Vaccaro’s dynamic debut last year.
  • They worked out a significant pay cut with veteran nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley, in part because he’ll be in a timeshare with Jenkins.
  • And they let defensive end Tom Johnson leave as a restricted free agent, in part because of undrafted rookie Glenn Foster's impressive performance last year.

From top to bottom, it’s entirely possible that this could wind up being an all-time great draft class for the Saints -- though it’s still far too early to bring up any comparisons to 2006, 1986 or 1981.

Vaccaro has generated the most buzz so far. A versatile safety in coverage and run support, he played all over the field as a full-time starter last year and finished third in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson described Vaccaro as a “eight-or-10 Pro Bowl type of player.”

Armstead could wind up being just as important if he can lock down the critical left tackle job. He showed promise last season after taking over the job in December and improving through each of his four starts.

Robinson might be the most fascinating of the bunch. The product of West Texas A&M exploded onto the scene during the playoffs last year. And Saints coach Sean Payton revealed that his mentor Bill Parcells compared Robinson to Curtis Martin.

Stills and Jenkins look like long-time starters in the making. Lelito could have that same potential. And fellow sophomores like Foster, pass-rusher Rufus Johnson, cornerback Rod Sweeting, linebacker Kevin Reddick, tight end Josh Hill and quarterback Ryan Griffin could all wind up playing bigger roles down the road, as well.

The most important part of the Saints’ 2013 draft class is that it has allowed the Saints to spend big in other key areas -- like the addition of Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd in free agency.

I spoke with ESPN analyst Louis Riddick recently about whether the Saints have proved that teams can thrive by pushing the salary-cap envelope each year. And he said to make that work, it’s essential that teams keep finding “cheap, affordable labor that is playing at a high level.

As Riddick pointed out, that’s something the Saints have been great at in recent years. And it’s something teams like the Dallas Cowboys have not been able to do consistently.

“That's a testament to (general manager Mickey Loomis) and Sean and the rest of the scouts down there,” Riddick said.