One thing concerned Tim Lelito more than earning a starting job with the New Orleans Saints: proving he could help his team win in whatever capacity it used him.
Well, the Saints are 4-0 in games Lelito has started on the interior of the offensive line, contests in which he was filling in for a pair of former NFL champions — one a four-time first-team All-Pro guard and the other with a Pro Bowl selection to his name.
And it’s safe to say Lelito can contribute to Saints victories whenever they require his presence, no doubt a reassurance coach Sean Payton is glad to have as New Orleans seeks to extend a two-game winning streak that has given it a 4-4 record and the top spot in the NFC South.
“Most importantly, we are winning,” Payton said when asked about whether Lelito had merely met or exceeded expectations while playing in place of injured veteran center Jonathan Goodwin in victories at home over Green Bay and at Carolina. “Our expectations for him are high, and I think he’s answered the bell.”
A player who entered the NFL in 2013 as an undrafted rookie out of Grand Valley State, Lelito could not have asked for bigger shoes to fill for the games he has started as a professional.
So far, that was two in 2013 in place of a hurt Jahri Evans, who won Super Bowl XLIV with the Saints and was a first-team All-Pro from 2009 to ’12. And then there were two more this season while subbing for Goodwin, who was a Pro Bowler the year the Saints won the NFL title, later reached three consecutive NFC title games with San Francisco and played in another Super Bowl with the 49ers before returning to New Orleans this June.
Lelito’s individual performance in those games hasn’t been perfect. In his first career start last year, he surrendered three sacks of Drew Brees to Arizona’s Darnell Dockett, a three-time Pro Bowl defensive end. He permitted a hit and a hurry on Brees against Green Bay and Carolina, according to Pro Football Focus.
But it’s not reasonable to demand perfection of a player who has lined up on every offensive snap his team has logged when he has started, which personnel at other position groups don’t do. What’s important is that the Saints have outscored the Cardinals, Falcons, Packers and Panthers by a combined 120-53 to beat them all with Lelito in the starting lineup.
What’s also important is that running back Mark Ingram ran for 272 yards and three touchdowns on 54 carries behind an offensive line with Lelito as its starting center this season. In charge of the NFL’s No. 3 passing attack, Brees threw for 608 yards, four touchdowns and one interception, and he ran for a fifth score operating under Lelito. He was sacked six times in those two games, but half of them could not be blamed on the offensive line.
“When his name was called, there wasn’t any letdown,” said left guard Ben Grubbs, a two-time Pro Bowler. “The ship continued to sail, and we continued to do well.”
Approached in the locker room after the Saints vanquished Carolina 28-10 on Thursday night, Lelito said what was most satisfying to him was gaining the experience of dealing with an opposing crowd for an entire game at center.
“You go up by 14 points at halftime,” he said, “you really kind of take the crowd out in the second half.”
The young lineman wouldn’t entertain the notion that there may be a controversy brewing about whether he or the 35-year-old Goodwin (hobbled by a hurt knee and ankle) should start in coming games. Lelito has played a lot at center in three other games Goodwin has left early with injuries.
Lelito almost had as many snaps (283) as Goodwin did (314) midway through the season.
But “there’s still stuff ... to work on,” Lelito said. “I’m just trying to get more comfortable at the position.”
That’s all certainly true. Yet it’s also true that Lelito’s future with the Saints could hardly be burning any brighter than it was as he packed up for his return flight to New Orleans after his fourth NFL start.