Center Brian de la Puente (29) had been a journeyman player since he entered the league in 2008 as an undrafted player until he landed with the Saints. (He is reminiscent of another journeyman player—Scott Fujita).
In 2010, de la Puente was signed to the Saints practice squad. In 2011, the Saints signed free agent Olin Kruetz to replace the departing Jonathan Goodwin. During the 2011 season, Kruetz was injured and de la Puente filled in admirably; and when Kruetz decided to retire mid-season, de la Puente had found a home. Despite these changes at center in 2011, the Saints offensive line won its second Madden Most Valuable Protector Award. The following season, one of the NFL’s premium stat sites (ProFootball Focus) named de la Puente “the least well known player on the line” and rated him as the team’s highest-performing lineman in 2012. The site also ranked him as the 2nd best center overall in 2012.
In 2013, de la Puente was ranked 16th by ProFootball Focus (PFF). In order to assess de la Puente’s 2013 season, I looked at the first two games of the season when players are the freshest, I watched two of his worst games and two of his best games.
De la Puente (as well as the other offensive linemen) saw some of the top ranked defensive lines in 2013–Seattle, 49ers, Bills, Cardinals, Panthers, Dolphins, and Jets. In these games, de la Puente performed better in pass protection than run blocking. The deficient in run blocking is not a lack of athleticism—in other words he is not a phone booth player–he can move around in space. However, there has been a diminution in his skill set and domination on the line. I do not know if the change is related to the loss of Aaron Kromer as the offensive line coach or the difference a year makes in a player’s productive ability but it was not as a result of injury. De la Puente was not on the injury list in 2013.
While de la Puente was not spectacular, he was not a deficit for the team either. Having him in the lineup is more likely to help win a game and would be preferred to losing him as a player. He plays hard and tough. He is not going to completely dominate defensive lines but his knowledge and experience in a complex offense is an asset–an asset other teams would like to acquire. As such, it is hoped the Saints will retain de la Puente’s services. Should they not be able to do so, they will look to free agency or the draft to replace him.
Free Agency: The two best free agents who are younger than 35 are Alex Mack (CLV) and Evan Dietrich-Smith (GB). Mack is better at run blocking than pass protection and Dietrich-Smith is better at pass protection than run blocking. Either would admirably replace de la Puente if we are not able to retain his services in free agency.
Draft: It is doubtful the Saints would draft a center with a high round draft pick based on the Saints history in draft rounds. Given this dynamic, it is likely the Saints would draft Bryan Stork, Tyler Larsen, James Stone, Jonotthan Harrison, or Corey Linsley if they replace de la Puente in the draft. However, drafting a center is highly unlikely given cerebral and pivotal role the center plays with the Saints. It is expected the Saints will more likely than not either obtain a free agent or a practice squad player to replace de la Puente if necessary.