To heat up the battle for the job of starting center, the Saints are reportedly turning to an old friend.
The Saints on Monday agreed in principle to a deal with Jonathan Goodwin, according to ESPN’s Mike Triplett, who cited a league source. Goodwin was in New Orleans already from 2006-10; then left for San Francisco in free agency for three seasons; went back on the open market; and, Triplett noted, could officially re-sign with the Saints as early as Tuesday.
Terms hadn’t been finalized on a contract, though indications are it will probably be for one year.
Goodwin was a Pro Bowler the year the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV. It’s anticipated the 35-year-old will mainly compete with second-year offensive lineman Tim Lelito for a spot that was vacated when Brian de la Puente, the Saints’ starting center since 2011, left for the Chicago Bears in April via free agency.
With Goodwin at center, the 49ers made it to the NFC title game three times and the Super Bowl once. He was entrenched on an offensive line tasked with being in front of one of the NFL’s most intricate running schemes, a ground game that respectively finished eighth, fourth and third in yards per game in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Nonetheless, Goodwin was allowed to become a free agent after the 49ers signed guard/center Daniel Kilgore to a three-year extension. Kilgore — a fifth-round draft pick for the 49ers in 2011 — has 33 games of NFL experience exclusively as a backup, but he’s nine years younger than Goodwin.
Goodwin, who spent his first four years in the NFL with the New York Jets before his first stint in New Orleans, will have a viable chance to be the Saints’ starting center when brought in to an offensive line that returns the two tackles (Terron Armstead, left; Zach Strief, right) and two guards (Ben Grubbs, left; Jahri Evans, right) that finished the 2013 campaign on the first string.
While Saints coach Sean Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis have expressed confidence in Lelito’s potential and have said he’ll be given a fair shot to win the gig at center, the young lineman’s only NFL regular-season experience as a starter was two games at right guard in place of an injured Evans last year.
Lelito played center with the first team during drills at the Saints’ opening series of voluntary organized team activities, which ran from May 27 to 29. A second series of OTAs runs from Tuesday to Thursday.
However, both Payton and Loomis have repeatedly said the Saints were leaving the option of bringing in a more established center this offseason to compete with Lelito, especially after passing on the chance to draft a rookie at the position in May.
Young free agents the Saints signed shortly after the draft include Matt Armstrong — Lelito’s former college teammate at Grand Valley State who won the award given to the best center in the small-school Football Championship Subdivision in 2013 — and Mike Golic Jr., who was a guard and center at Notre Dame before trying out for Pittsburgh last year and not making the team.
New Orleans on its roster Monday had 90 players, which is the league’s limit. The reported agreement between Goodwin and the Saints implied the team would likely need to cut a player to create a spot for the veteran center.
On Monday afternoon, the team waived two players: guard/center Mike Golic Jr. and linebacker Spencer Hadley. The waiving of Golic, undrafted out of Notre Dame in 2013, is notable because he had played center with the backups in drills at last week’s Saints OTAs. Hadley was an undrafted rookie out of Brigham Young, and part of his contract was guaranteed, the NFL transaction wire said.
The Saints meanwhile had about $1.94 million in salary cap space, the NFL Players Association website said. Only teams’ top 51 contracts count against the salary cap in the offseason.
Before Triplett’s report Monday, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport suggested the Saints had been waiting to reunite with Goodwin until after June 1, which was Sunday, when the signings of veteran free agents don’t affect the formula used to determine which teams get compensatory draft picks.
That’s certainly plausible. But the Saints may not have gotten a compensatory draft pick in 2015 anyway. Though the most prominent player who became a free agent and left on his own accord was Malcolm Jenkins, New Orleans quickly acquired a player who’s been held in higher regard than him: three-time Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd.