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Ranking Saints needs: No. 3 Guard/center

A position-by-position look at where the New Orleans Saints stand heading into the 2015 offseason -- ranked from 1-12 in order of the team’s need for upgrades or replacements.

Current depth chart:

G Jahri Evans. Age 31, signed through 2016. 2015 salary and bonuses: $7.5 million. 2015 salary-cap number: $11 million.

G Ben Grubbs. Age 30, signed through 2016. 2015 salary and bonuses: $6.6 million. 2015 salary-cap number: $9.6 million.

C Jonathan Goodwin. Age 36, unrestricted free agent.

C/G Tim Lelito. Age 25, scheduled to become restricted free agent in 2016. 2015 salary and bonuses: $585,000. 2015 salary-cap number: $586,668.

G Senio Kelemete. Age 24, exclusive rights free agent.

C Michael Brewster. Age 25, scheduled to become restricted free agent in 2016. 2015 salary and bonuses: $585,000. 2015 salary-cap number: $585,000.

G Andrew Miller. Age 24, scheduled to become exclusive-rights free agent in 2016. 2015 salary and bonuses: $435,000. 2015 salary-cap number: $435,000.

Analysis:

Evans and Grubbs both showed signs of regression in 2014, which was disturbing considering they get paid “elite” salaries. But my best guess is they’ll both be back in 2015 for two reasons:

1. The Saints have no alternatives waiting in the wings on the current roster. The only way they could afford to let Evans or Grubbs go is if they sign a free agent with starting experience or maybe draft a guard in Round 1 that’s ready to start, which is way too much of a crapshoot to rely on.

2. They are still above-average guards, especially Evans. Yes, they were both way too inconsistent this past season, and Evans had some uncharacteristically poor games against Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Atlanta. But they also had some good moments, especially in a run game that was vastly improved over the first 13 weeks of the season. So while the Saints might be able to find cheaper alternatives in free agency, they’d be hard-pressed to find guys who are cheaper AND better.

Either way, the Saints need to start developing one or two young guards ASAP. Even if they stick with Evans and Grubbs this season, they’ll need replacements sooner than later. And the guard position is an even bigger priority in New Orleans than elsewhere because of the way QB Drew Brees likes to step up into the pocket and find passing lanes. In a dream world, the Saints would be able to find their version of Dallas Cowboys standout rookie Zack Martin in the draft.

As for the center position, it’s possible the Saints could bring back Goodwin on another minimal one-year deal. But Goodwin really struggled down the stretch after battling a variety of nagging injuries during the season. So it seems more likely that Lelito will be ready to take over there in his third NFL season. Or perhaps the Saints would sign another veteran center (bring back Brian de la Puente?) and consider moving Lelito to guard.

ESPN scouting insider Matt Williamson’s take:

“I can’t see letting both (guards) go, but maybe one of them. They didn’t live up to their contracts. I think that’s a position the Saints value more than most teams. They’ve always had money in their guards, I don’t think that’s an accident. And they let ‘em down. They need those guys to be Pro Bowlers. And if they’re average, there’s no one to step up. That’s certainly a contributing factor to a disappointing Saints season.

“I thought center was a real problem all year. I don’t know if Goodwin just got old or what. But he was a decent player with the (San Francisco 49ers) with two really good guards around him. But I thought he really struggled.”

Previous rankings:

No. 12: Specialists

No. 11: Quarterback

No. 10: Tight end

No. 9: Running back

No. 8: Safety

No. 7: Offensive tackle

No. 6: Wide receiver

No. 5: Defensive line

No. 4: Inside linebacker