10 New Orleans Saints who must make an impact in 2015: No. 7, Tim Lelito
By Brian Pavek
The national media has basically pushed two narratives this offseason in regards to the New Orleans Saints; one that Drew Brees is no longer regarded as anything remotely close to being a top quarterback, and secondly that the Saints were having a ‘fire sale’ getting rid of all their quality players. I’m not the first person to mention that either/both of those ideas are ridiculous, and I won’t be the last. I won’t even dignify the Drew Brees slander with a response, but the idea that the team was just jettisoning all of its best players in an effort to enter a ‘rebuild’ is simply preposterous.
Let’s be clear. All of the moves the Saints made this offseason were for the sole purpose of winning now. It just so happens to be the case that some of those moves also help the team in the long run. One of the moves that didn’t get as much coverage, but was just as important as the other moves made by the team, was trading away starting left guard Ben Grubbs. That move brings us to number seven on our list.
Number 7: Guard, Tim Lelito
The need for Lelito to step in and be an immediate contributor for the team is as great as any player on the roster this year. One of the biggest reasons that the Saints were unsuccessful last year was the fact that the interior offensive line was anywhere from average to horrible. The team replaced injured veteran Jonathan Goodwin with pro bowler Max Unger in the Jimmy Graham trade. However, the move that got a lot less publicity was the trade of starting left guard Ben Grubbs to the Kansas City Chiefs for a 5th round pick.
Grubbs was very off and on last season, and largely ineffective at key moments where the team had to send him help. There were also reports of some personal issues between he and other teammates which explains why the team elected to get rid of him (getting rid of his cap hit was a nice bonus). Grubbs wasn’t ever really great in New Orleans and always failed to live up to his predecessor in Carl Nicks, but he wasn’t really a liability until last year.
He is now replaced (presumably) by third year player Tim Lelito. Lelito was actually the team’s backup center last year, and even started two games for Goodwin. His natural position though is left guard, and it’s where he played in college (at Grand Valley State) so the expectation is that Lelito will be at his best back where he is most comfortable.
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The sample size with him is rather small, but the little I have seen from Lelito leaves me to believe that he is going to be just fine. The only poor performance he really had was against the Cardinals in 2013 where he started at right guard for Jahri Evans. The good news was that even though he got whipped pretty bad by Darnell Dockett on some plays early in that game, he was largely able to hold his own as the game wore on. Also to his credit, having trouble with Dockett isn’t necessarily a knock on a player. Dockett has manhandled players before with a lot greater pedigree than Lelito, and the fact that he improved as the game went on is a good sign.
I don’t claim to be an expert on offensive line play. Based on my own observations, if blocking was the only thing involved Lelito would have taken the starting center job from Goodwin fairly early on last year. He was the better blocker in both the running and passing games, and it wasn’t too close (although to be fair to Goody he was also banged up pretty much all year). Lelito started against the Green Bay Packers and the Carolina Panthers last year, and those were arguably the two best games the offensive line played all year.
I don’t think his success was a coincidence, as he’s an intelligent player with very good measurables who clearly loves the game. Having played his first game right after the death of his grandma (who raised him) demonstrates his dedication for the game quite clearly in my book.
Lelito isn’t a human steamroller like Nicks was. However, he is what you want in a modern-day NFL interior lineman. He has enough speed and quickness to get out onto the second level and make plays, enough power and balance to stop interior pass rushers, and the intelligence not to be easily fooled by clever defensive rotations.
Does that mean that I am predicting a pro bowl berth for Lelito? Not even close. But, it does mean that Brees should feel a lot more secure this year knowing that the three guys most charged with keeping him safe are all quality this year. Lelito also adds a third young player to the Saints offensive line of the ‘future’ to go along with tackles Terron Armstead and Andrus Peat. With Unger likely having 3-5 years left at the top of his game, the Saints should feel very secure about the future of the line.
That is of course if Lelito can be counted on. While he did look very good to me in the limited film we have on him, that is the very issue at hand. He has little tape to go off of. Lelito simply doesn’t have a ton of experience, and teams haven’t really been able to see several games of his film to start picking up on his idiosyncrasies and weaknesses. If Lelito is NOT able to step up and become a quality starter for the Saints next year, then it is going to mean the team is most likely in BIG trouble.
Drew Brees may not be declining at nearly the rapid pace that the national media would like to portray, but he is still a quarterback in his mid-thirties and taking a pounding like he has the last couple of years isn’t going to help at all. I may have faith in Lelito, but I also acknowledge that he is far from a sure thing. It will be up to him to step up and provide stability and competence to the left guard sport for the Saints.
There is no question about how important it is for him to do so. I was very tempted to put him much higher on this list because of the impact incompetence can have at his position. Lelito’s impact on this team can’t be marginalized. He isn’t a key cog in the respect that as he goes, so does the team, but if he is unable to step up and at a minimum become a quality starter, it will have ramifications that go far beyond his job security.
The offensive line play needs to return to the high levels it has consistently been at in the past, and Tim Lelito’s emergence is a major factor in that. If he can not only be acceptable, but have an impact in the games….the sky is the limit for this team. We all know how dangerous Brees is when he is given time, and quality play ‘up the guy’ will also reinforce the running game. It would be more than unfair to say it’s all on him, but I think there is good reason to believe that Lelito’s impact on the 2015 season results is right up there with anyone else.