However, Payton revealed Wednesday at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix that the Saints discussed possible trades for both Evans and veteran guard Ben Grubbs before dealing Grubbs to the Kansas City Chiefs for a fifth-round draft pick.
“We knew we weren’t going to be able to keep both veteran guards,” Payton said of Evans, who is due $7.5 million in salary and bonuses this year, and Grubbs, who was due $6.6 million.
“We knew we were going to be able to afford one of the guards,” Payton said. “Both guys we have great respect for, we graded very closely. … [But] we were at kind of a threshold with regards to our salary cap. And we knew we had a young player in [third-year backup] Tim Lelito, he was going to be coming in.”
Payton said Lelito is now projected to be the Saints’ starting left guard. He said Lelito might have been projected as the Saints’ starting center instead if they hadn’t acquired veteran center Max Unger in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks. And in that scenario, the Saints would have looked at either signing a free agent guard or drafting one.
Evans and Grubbs are very similar, since they’re both former Pro Bowlers, both 31 years old and both have shown signs of regression in recent years.
Based on my film reviews, I felt like Evans was still playing at a slightly higher level, especially as a run blocker – though he had some very rough performances in pass protection against Atlanta, Baltimore and Tampa Bay.
It’s unclear if the Saints stuck with Evans out of choice or because they received a better offer for Grubbs.
“Jahri will play for us at right guard,” Payton said of the six-time Pro Bowler, who was due to receive a $500,000 roster bonus on Tuesday. “I think that the structure of his contract with regards to this upcoming season, I don’t know that that’s resolved, in regards to how it’s gonna lay out. Because obviously we’re up against the cap. But I think he’s done a really good job.”
As for Lelito, the former undrafted free agent told NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune while at a charity event Wednesday that he appreciates that the Saints “think so highly of me,” but he insisted any talk of starting is still premature at this stage of the offseason.
“Nothing in the NFL is a for-sure thing,” said Lelito, who also had a strong chance of starting at center last year before the Saints signed veteran Jonathan Goodwin later in the summer.