WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. (AP) - When the New Orleans Saints traded guard Ben Grubbs to the Kansas City Chiefs in March, coach Sean Payton hinted they wouldn’t have done it without a solid plan.
That comes in the form of 6-foot-4, 315-pound Tim Lelito, a backup who may emerge as the man who replaces the two-time Pro Bowler.
Plugging the hole at left guard is one of the top issues for the Saints, and their first padded practice Saturday at The Greenbrier gave coaches a better look at the entire line.
Lelito, who has appeared in every game since he signed as an undrafted free agent in 2013, has been considered the heir apparent since Grubbs’ departure.
Lelito competed for the starting job at center last year in the Saints’ first visit to West Virginia but was beaten out by Jonathan Goodwin. He made two starts there when Goodwin was injured.
On Saturday, Lelito played with the starting five, joined by left tackle Terron Armstead, newly acquired center Max Unger, right guard Jahri Evans and right tackle Zach Strief. That group has a combined 283 regular-season NFL starts - only two of them by Lelito.
The starting job certainly hasn’t been handed to him. Senio Kelemete, who appeared in 10 games last season, also will get some looks. Lelito understands that and took the first day of pads in stride.
“You’re going to learn different guys’ strengths and different guys’ weaknesses,” Lelito said. “I know what I need to work on now … like not getting so wide on guys. But I felt like once they got inside, I watched them down. It’s not like they went straight upfield and went after the (quarterback).”
Lelito is sliding over to a familiar spot. He started 45 consecutive games at left guard for Grand Valley State, where he helped the Lakers to one of the most prolific offenses at the NCAA Division II level.
“I’m really comfortable at guard. There’s just some stuff that I haven’t worked on since college,” Lelito said. “It’s a little different playing in college than it is playing left guard in the NFL.”
Lelito also praised Unger, who came to New Orleans via Seattle in the trade that sent tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks. Unger, a former All-Pro who has played in two Super Bowls, will replace Goodwin, who left as a free agent.
“I think Max is great,” Lelito said. “Max has got a lot of experience. He does certain things just a little bit different (than previous centers). But Max is awesome.”
“The football is pretty similar,” Unger said of the transition from one team to another. “They’re not asking me to do anything differently than I’ve never done before. So in a sense it’s familiar, but at the same time it’s a different practice structure.”
Payton didn’t evaluate the performance of the offensive line, but was excited about Armstead’s athleticism in pass rush drills and confident in Unger’s credentials.
“I think from a center position you are able to quickly get the mental, the experience and all of the intangibles that go in to being one of the guys that is really a signal-caller, if you will, with regards to identifying the defensive fronts,” Payton said. “So you receive a lot of that in the spring, but much like a lot of these new players, you’re getting a better feel for how they carry their pads. I thought overall this practice went well.”
Notes: Cornerback Brandon Browner, who signed with the Saints after spending a season with the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, says he doesn’t regret not re-signing with them: “No, this is a business. But when they asked me to take a pay cut it was time to get up out of there.” . Browner will be celebrating his 31st birthday Sunday. “My birthday always fell on football season. When I was a kid, that was all I wanted was for my mom to sign me up for football.” . Payton refuted a question that the team was “soft” at camp last season. “I don’t recall anyone feeling that exact way after the first day a year ago. I think that they handled the conditioning test well. I think we were in better shape based on that test. We will see. I think it is early in the process.”
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