Can The Saints Afford To Let De La Puente Walk?
By Greg Barber
After putting the franchise tag on TE Jimmy Graham, signing safety Jairus Byrd and trading RB Darren Sproles, the next piece of business for the New Orleans Saints has been the decision of what to do with veteran offensive linemen Zach Strief and Brian De La Puente.
The question on Strief’s future with the team has already been answered, as he recently re-signed with the Saints for $20.5 million over five years with $8.4 million guaranteed. So for the time being, it appears as though Strief will be the starting RT in New Orleans for at least the next two or three years. It is highly doubtful that he stays through the full contract.
Most people thought Strief would be lured away by another team with a larger contract, but it seems like he preferred to stay in New Orleans and the team wanted to keep him. Being that Strief is staying around, the RT position is no longer a priority in the upcoming NFL Draft or free agency. By keeping Strief in the fold, the Saints retain a blocker who is solid, albeit unspectacular. New Orleans knows what it is getting with him and it is obvious the team can live with it.
However, the center position could potentially become a priority depending on what De La Puente does this offseason. The tea leaves say he moves on because he is likely to receive more money from one of the other teams he has visited over the past week. De La Puente just finished meeting with the Washington Redskins and has reportedly visited other teams too. So now, it is decision time for De La Puente - that is, if the Saints have not already made a decision for him.
From this viewpoint, New Orleans can do better at center. De La Puente is not considered a mauler like his two mates on the interior, OGs Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans. Having a center that can knock opposing players off the line of scrimmage gives QB Drew Brees the ability to step up in the pocket comfortably and make his throws.
Second-year player Tim Lelito has been mentioned as the heir apparent for the position, but there is still a possibility that the Saints could go with a short-term veteran free agent. A player like Jonathan Goodwin, who will be 36 years old this year, would be a great stopgap player for a season or two to act as a mentor to Lelito. Richard Ohrnberger or Ryan Wendell could be a little high-risk to bring in, but could also pay off for the Saints. However, it is doubtful New Orleans would consider signing either one of these players.
If Lelito is ready to take on the position, it makes sense to go with him as the center moving forward. Trial by fire is the best way to learn, but also a great way to get your star QB knocked around at the same time.
The bottom line is, the Saints could do better at both positions and the success of their high-octane offense depends on a solid line.