METAIRIE, Louisiana (AP) — The New Orleans Saints could conceivably find next season’s starting center in this week’s NFL draft, general manager Mickey Loomis said Wednesday.
The center position is relatively complicated one in that it requires reading defensive fronts and making pre-snap calls to fellow blockers. But Loomis said the Saints have the experience at both guard spots and at quarterback to make the transition from college to the NFL a quick one for a smart, talented rookie center.
“Obviously when you are drafting a center, intelligence, mental quickness, those are the things that you want to make sure you are high on before you draft a guy to play that position,” Loomis said.
Brian de la Puente, who left in the current free agency period for Chicago, started at center in New Orleans for most of the past three seasons.
His backup last season was then-rookie Tim Lelito, whose only playing time came at guard last season. The Saints have yet to sign another free agent center to compete with Lilito, but former San Francisco and New Orleans center Jonathan Goodwin remains on the market.
Whoever takes over as starting center will line up between seven-year veteran left guard Ben Grubbs and eight-year veteran right guard Jahri Evans while snapping the ball to 14th-year quarterback Drew Brees — all three of whom made the Pro Bowl last season.
“For us with two veteran guards in Ben and Jahri, it is going to make it easier for a center,” Loomis said. “With a quarterback like Drew, who does a lot of the identifications and makes a lot of the calls, that makes it easier, so it definitely makes it possible, probably a little easier with our team than some others.”
Many draft analysts have listed Southern Cal’s Marcus Martin and Colorado State’s Weston Richburg as the top two centers in this year’s draft. Both are widely projected to be taken either late in the first round or in the second round.
Barring a trade, the Saints’ first-round pick with be the 27th overall, leaving them in prime position to choose one of the top two centers, even if they opt to trade down a few spots in exchange for extra picks. The position is an important one for the Saints, whose prolific passing offense relies on the middle of the line’s ability to hold the front of pocket steady so the 6-foot Brees can see passing lanes, and step up and throw.
The Saints, however, they generally try to go with the best available player, regardless of position, when they make a selection. Loomis also has said the Saints don’t have few holes on the roster, giving them flexibility in this draft.
The Saints also could benefit from more depth and talent at the receiver, cornerback, defensive end or linebacker positions.
Loomis said the Saints use 29 of the maximum allowable individual prospect 30 visits, evaluated 40 to 50 players in their local workout (players who are either from or went to college in the New Orleans area) and interviewed 60 players at the scouting combine in Indianapolis, and spoke to other players at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.
Notes: Loomis described a recent decision not to exercise RB Mark Ingram’s 2015 option as purely a “financial decision” based on “the amount of the tender versus what the market value for running backs has been.” The Saints exercised a similar option for defensive end Cameron Jordan worth nearly $7 million by a May 3 deadline, but declined to do so for Ingram, whose option was worth $5.2 million. “I like Mark. I talked to Mark before we made that decision,” Loomis said. “I told him it wasn’t reflective on what we thought about him. It was just a business decision, a financial decision. We have high expectations for him and I hope he has a great year.”