SLIDELL — Although the Saints cleared a starting spot for him by trading left guard Ben Grubbs to Kansas City, holdover Tim Lelito is not taking anything for granted.
Lelito heard general manager Mickey Loomis’ kind words earlier this week from the owners’ meetings in Phoenix, when he labeled Lelito “a good find for us.” He knows coach Sean Payton said he considered him a starter. He also understands how tenuous everything is at this time of the year.
“I appreciate they think so highly of me like that, but still it’s the end of March,” Lelito said after addressing more than 200 third- to fifth-graders Wednesday at St. Margaret Mary Elementary School as part of the Rotolo’s Literacy Program Visit series. “There’s a lot more stuff to come. We haven’t even done OTAs or anything like that, so to say, ‘Hey, we like Tim’ is great, but it’s still premature. Nothing in the NFL is a for-sure thing.”
Just about the only certainty after a 7-9 season in 2014 was that New Orleans would make changes on the interior of its offensive line. Payton identified the area as a primary concern because Drew Brees received too much pressure up the middle, but the Saints appear to view Lelito as part of the solution.
Lelito, a third-year free agent out of Division II Grand Valley State, started twice as a rookie in place of injured right guard Jahri Evans. The Saints beat Arizona and Atlanta.
Last year, he started twice in place of injured center Jonathan Goodwin. The Saints beat Green Bay and Carolina.
Again, he hardly views that perfect record as a sign he has arrived.
“(Reporters) want to throw out the four games I’ve started we’ve won, but there’s a lot of stuff I still need to work on,” he said. “The first year I would probably give myself a C-minus. This year I think I did a little bit better, but I’d probably give myself a C-plus or a B-minus.”
Lelito is guardedly optimistic in part because nothing has come easily for him. He started playing football late, in eighth grade, and was on the edge of being ineligible in high school because of bad grades. He was on academic probation for a semester at Grand Valley State.
In New Orleans, he lost an open competition with Goodwin for the starting center spot last summer. The Saints then traded Jimmy Graham for two-time Pro-Bowl center Max Unger from Seattle earlier this month, locking down that position for the foreseeable future.
Lelito started at left guard all four years at Grand Valley State, but he had become comfortable at center.
“I embraced that role,” he said. “Even though I was taking on heavier guys at the nose, I still liked it because they were right there (in front of him). I felt like I had a little bit more speed, so I could get around guys a little bit more and still had the strength to take on 350- to 360-pounders.”
Flexibility is one of Lelito’s best assets on and off the field. After answering elementary-student questions for more than 10 minutes, he agreed to a second round while school officials searched for missing paper plates for the Rotolo’s pizza giveaway.
From the extended question-and-answer session, he revealed he owns a cat, his favorite activity in his spare time is playing guitar, his favorite book as a kid was “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle, his favorite color is blue, his favorite superhero is “Batman,” his favorite animal is a platypus and his favorite team is the Detroit Lions.
That last answer drew a follow-up question of why, forcing him to explain he lived in Michigan for 23 years before coming to the Saints.
He is doing everything in his power to extend his stay in New Orleans as long as possible, including staying in the area to train this offseason. He said he and starting left tackle Terron Armstead were spending time at a UFC gym to work on striking ability, footwork and hand-eye coordination, something Grubbs did last offseason.
Lelito may have the inside track to a starting job, but he realizes players can become outsiders quickly in the NFL. He can see himself as the Saints’ first-team left guard, the top backup at all three interior positions for the third straight year or searching for a new team.
“The options are endless,” he said. “I can’t tell you what’s going to happen.”