As the New Orleans Saints headed into the 2014 NFL Draft they were facing questions about improving several areas of their roster. Could they get younger at wide receiver? Could they find a future starter at cornerback? Could they find more depth at outside linebacker?
Once the draft was over, most of the questions about the Saints were answered with one glaring exception. Who would be the team’s starting center in 2014? Many expected that general manager Mickey Loomis planned to take USC center Marcus Martin, one of the top two rated centers in the draft, with either the team’s first or second round selection. Loomis instead opted to select Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks and Nebraska cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste with his top two picks. The Saints wouldn’t get another shot at Martin since he came off the board a dozen picks later. Not only did Loomis not select Martin, he did not select a center with any of the team’s six picks in this year’s draft. The free agent signing frenzy following the conclusion of the draft Saturday evening yielded much different results though.
One of the most intriguing signings by the Saints following the draft was not an undrafted rookie, rather an unsigned free agent who spent last summer in camp with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Offensive lineman Mike Golic Jr., who actually went undrafted in the 2013 draft, was signed to a two year deal. In four years on the field for Notre Dame, Golic served as a starter at both center and guard for an offensive line that was one of the best in recent school history during his final year with the team. That year the incredible play of the offensive line played a big role in helping the Fighting Irish go undefeated on their path to the BCS Championship Game where they suffered their only loss of the year to the Alabama Crimson Tide. Golic has the NFL in his blood. His father Mike was a defensive tackle in the league for eight years mostly with the Philadelphia Eagles. His uncle Bob played defensive tackle for fourteen years and was named All-Pro twice and made three Pro Bowls.
The Saints also signed undrafted free agent center Matt Armstrong out of Grand Valley State. Armstrong spent most of his college career as a starter sliding up and down the offensive line playing tackle, guard and center. In his first year on the field he was named the team’s offensive rookie of the year. This past season he was awarded the Division II Rimington Award which is given to the top Division II center in the country. The down side with Armstrong is that he has a pretty extensive injury history. In addition to a concussion and several quad injuries, he’s suffered torn knee cartilage that required bone graph surgery, he had surgery for bone spurs in his ankle and another to tighten up his shoulder joint. His versatility along the line has great upside as long as he can stay healthy.
Both Golic and Armstrong should be in the mix for the starting center position competing against backup guard Tim Lelito. Heading into his second year with the black & gold, Lelito was picked up last spring as an undrafted free agent out of Grand Valley State where he played alongside Armstrong. In his first season with the Saints Lelito got his chance to start twice opposite left guard Ben Grubbs when Jahri Evans was dinged up on a couple of occasions. While his first outing against the Arizona Cardinals was less that stellar, his second start against the Atlanta Falcons (which came only days after losing his grandmother to cancer) was a much better performance. The Saints coaching staff is reportedly very high on Lelito’s potential but they don’t want to just hand over a key starting position without making sure they have the best man for the job.
The Saints have also brought in free agent center Jonathan Goodwin shortly before the draft for a workout but have yet to sign him to a contract. Goodwin was New Orleans’ starting center for three straight seasons including the team’s 2009 Super Bowl season before signing with the 49ers as a free agent in 2011.
While center may not be the flashiest positions, it will definitely be a camp competition to keep an eye on this preseason. The Saints will need to find a young new talent who is both strong and intelligent to run their offensive line with a little help from Evans and Grubbs. The Who Dat Nation will have to wait to find out if any of these three contenders can fill that role.