Lelito ready to play at center if Goodwin can’t start against Green Bay _lowres

Advocate file photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Saints offensive lineman Tim Lelito is taking the place of the departed Ben Grubbs at left guard

Tim Lelito always expected a battle.

Named the likely frontrunner to fill the left guard spot by Saints coach Sean Payton, General Manager Mickey Loomis and a few of his fellow offensive linemen this offseason, Lelito has been reluctant to agree with any suggestion that the spot left open by Ben Grubbs is his to lose.

Lelito has been in the NFL long enough to know he was always going to have competition, even before the Saints deepened the pool of competitors on Wednesday. New Orleans signed seven-year veteran guard Mike McGlynn, a league source confirmed, and released wide receiver Andy Tanner in a move that adds another guard to the roster, a guard who has served as a starter for four of the last five seasons, albeit with three different teams.

“The job is still open,” Lelito said at the Saints Hall of Fame Celebrity Golf Classic on Monday, two days before McGlynn’s signing. “No one’s penciled in right now.”

McGlynn adds a veteran presence to the competition. The 30-year-old has started 61 games in the past five seasons, including stints as a regular starter with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2010, the Indianapolis Colts in 2012 and 2013 and the Kansas City Chiefs last season. According to Pro Football Focus, McGlynn struggled last year, allowing 18 hurries, four hits and six sacks, but he still brings plenty of starting experience.

And Lelito has reason to be wary. At this time last season, Lelito appeared to be the heir apparent to Brian De La Puente at center, only to see the Saints sign veteran Jonathan Goodwin in June. Goodwin won the job, and although Lelito started two games and played as a swing player, he wasn’t able to win the starting job outright despite injury issues for Goodwin.

“I have no clue,” Lelito said of why he didn’t get more playing time. “I trust the coaches 100 percent, so whatever they’re feeling, you know, is the right move. I just showed up every day, went to work, learned as much as I could from Goody and those guys, so I think it worked out for me in the long run.”

Lelito, who arrived in New Orleans as a little-known undrafted free agent from Grand Valley State, is acutely aware that competition can come from anywhere on the roster. Before the Saints signed McGlynn, Lelito was already expecting a heavy challenge from returning backup Senio Kelemete.

“You’ve got Senio right there,” Lelito said. “We’re about neck and neck right now, so it’s all going to come down to training camp and preseason games, who can perform better in preseason games.”

Lelito is still the clear leader in the clubhouse.

The rest of the Saints have sung Lelito’s praises ever since New Orleans traded Grubbs to Kansas City, a move that allowed the Chiefs to replace McGlynn.

Earlier this spring, Payton told reporters he considered Lelito a starter, and Loomis echoed those comments at the league meetings in March. Lelito may have only started four games in his career, but he’s earned plenty of respect in the Saints’ locker room.

“The thing a lot of people don’t know is how good Tim Lelito and Senio are,” right tackle Zach Strief said on Monday. “Those are two excellent football players, and they’re going to let those guys battle it out for that spot, and it’s going to be a battle.”

McGlynn’s presence might end up providing depth for the interior of the offensive line. If Lelito moves into the starting lineup, the Saints have to replace the sixth spot he occupied last season and be ready to go if injuries strike the interior.

Until he’s officially named the starter, though, Lelito is approaching the offseason as if he’s got something to prove.

“I definitely want the position, and I definitely have to earn it,” Lelito said. “It’s going to be a fierce battle, I think, in OTAs and minicamp and then in training camp, so yeah, we’re going to definitely compete for it.”