WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. — Had former Jets offensive linemen such as Kevin Mawae, Jason Fabini and Dave Szott kept their NFL expertise to themselves when Jonathan Goodwin was a league newbie 13 seasons ago, then maybe Goodwin would be treating his chief competition to start at center for the Saints in the same manner this training camp.
But Mawae, a center; Fabini, a tackle; and Szott, a guard, didn’t shut out Goodwin, even if he was working to perhaps one day replace them. They picked up where the coaches’ instructions for Goodwin stopped, and it paid off in 2005, when an injury to former LSU standout Mawae forced the Jets to line up Goodwin at center for one game and then at left guard for the final 10.
“Those guys looked out for me,” Goodwin said. “To be able to learn from a guy like (three-time first-team All-Pro) Kevin Mawae, I think it’s been valuable for my career.”
Oh, it has. Since then, while with the Saints from 2006-10, Goodwin helped New Orleans win Super Bowl XLIV by playing center and earned his sole Pro Bowl nod. He then signed with San Francisco, where he reached three NFC Championship Games and another Super Bowl with the 49ers. He returned to New Orleans to jockey for the vacant starting job at center this preseason against second-year offensive lineman Tim Lelito.
It’s now fallen on Goodwin to repay the favor Mawae and company did for him forward by tutoring Lelito, who started in two games (both wins) at right guard as a rookie last year. And he’s had no reservations about it.
“I would feel bad if he’s in there, and I could’ve taught him something (I didn’t), and who knows? That could cost us a game,” Goodwin said after practice at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia on Thursday. “I’d feel bad if something like that happened.”
There’s no question Lelito is receiving prime lessons. Even if he absorbs them all, it could require some special football to win the audition against Goodwin.
Thirty-four at the beginning of last season, Goodwin remained a heady, disciplined player. For example, he was only penalized three times through the NFC title game — two false starts for minus-10 yards in a Week 1 win against Green Bay as well as a 10-yard holding flag that wasn’t thrown until a Week 13 victory versus St. Louis.
Those were among just nine flags Goodwin drew throughout his time in San Francisco. All were during the 48 regular-season games for which he was there — none were during his eight playoff contests with the 49ers, when intelligent performances from veterans mattered most.
There’s also the fact that Goodwin deserves some of the credit for the success of the 49ers’ complex ground game, which enabled San Francisco to rack up the eighth-, fourth- and third-most rushing yards in the NFL from 2011 to 2013.
“He obviously knows exactly where to go,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, who arrived in New Orleans the same year Goodwin first did. “You’ll go six or seven weeks without a mental error — that’s the kind of player he is.”
Hints of that were evident by the time the sixth day of practice wrapped up Thursday. An unofficial count had Goodwin winning at least five one-on-one battles and dropping maybe no more than one over the previous days, and on Thursday he prompted plaudits from observers by springing a long run up the middle with a commanding block.
Lelito, on the other hand, won at least five one-on-ones over the previous days as well. But an unofficial count had him losing at least four such confrontations.
Rotating with Goodwin between the first- and second-team offense ever since the veteran returned to New Orleans in June, Lelito has also been at center on some fumbled snaps.
Yet the young lineman does count on some factors that make him a true contender to start at center for a unit that last year was in front of a rushing attack averaging 112.8 yards per game over its last 10 total outings while surrendering fewer sacks than all but eight NFL teams.
Lelito is well-sized at 6-foot-4, 315 pounds. At 25, the wear-and-tear on his body is relatively minimal. And he’s got a knowledgeable teacher willing to let his brain be picked in Goodwin.
“When we’re at lunch and stuff and dinner, I’ll sit down with him and talk about what we’re doing on this and ... what do you think,” Lelito said. “Definitely, I think we have a good rapport on and off the field.”
Goodwin wouldn’t want it any other way.
“When I came into this league, I had older guys look after me,” he said. “I’ll do the same for Tim.”