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Opportunity to start arrives at perfect time for Senio Kelemete

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Free agent signee Larry Warford left last week’s game against the Packers to injury, so Senio Kelemete is (again) the next man up.

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NEW ORLEANS, LA: New Orleans Saints offensive lineman Senio Kelemete (65) blocks for quarterback Drew Brees (9) against the Detroit Lions defensive line at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
NEW ORLEANS, LA: New Orleans Saints offensive lineman Senio Kelemete (65) blocks for quarterback Drew Brees (9) against the Detroit Lions defensive line at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

It’s tough for offensive linemen to build a good reputation. They don’t collect easy-to-read stats like quarterbacks, running backs, or almost any of their other teammates. It’s harder for an offensive lineman to make his mark in the NFL when he isn’t a regular starter. In spite of those long odds, Senio Kelemete was managed just that.

The New Orleans Saints blocker has been a fixture along the line for years, displaying rare versatility when filling in for an injury here or there. Over the past four years, Kelemete has seen action at all five offensive line spots: left tackle, left guard, center, right guard, and right tackle. The Saints have so far trusted him more as a reserve and the team’s go-to sixth lineman, but they haven’t hesitated to put him in the spotlight in a pinch.

He’s usually just been a solid fill-in, but Kelemete’s career has seen some drama. In 2015, starting left tackle Terron Armstead aggravated an injury in pregame warmups and wasn’t cleared to play. Despite having not taken a single rep at left tackle in the week of practices before, Kelemete stood up and shut down the Atlanta Falcons then-rookie star, Vic Beasley on the way to a 20-17 victory to close out that season.

The story hasn’t changed much since then. The Saints invested a long-term contract in former Detroit Lions right guard Larry Warford this spring and so far he’s delivered. Warford’s play early this season was up-and-down as right tackle Zach Strief was in-and-out of the lineup and center Max Unger continued to work back from offseason surgery. Warford finally settled in against the Carolina Panthers, getting to the second level and opening running lanes with ease, but an abdominal injury sidelined him against the Green Bay Packers.

So back to Kelemete. The Washington Huskies grad plays football the way you like to see it. He’s technically-sound and doesn’t make many mistakes, though Jeff Triplette’s inept officiating crew flagged him repeatedly two weeks ago for not lining up correctly on extra-point attempts. Kelemete can get overpowered and is susceptible to the superb athletes pressuring quarterbacks inside, but his career so far doesn’t carry many demerits.

The big thing to note with Kelemete is that he has played multiple positions well without embarrassing himself, often with just a moment’s notice to prepare. Now he gets several weeks to play in the starting unit. That couldn’t come at a better time considering he’s due for unrestricted free agency in a few months.

Just 27-years old and with five years in the NFL to his credit, Kelemete is poised to put some strong game tape up for bidders. Dallas Cowboys guard Ronald Leary appeared in just 48 games in five years before earning a four-year, $36-million from the Denver Broncos. Kelemete has already played in 47 games in four years for the Saints (his rookie year was spent on the bench of the team that drafted him, the Arizona Cardinals) and could be setting himself up for a similar payday if he holds up.

For what it’s worth, Pro Football Focus’ play-by-play charting supports Kelemete’s chances, naming him one of the most-efficient pass-blocking guards this year:

Kelemete has now already logged snaps at left guard, right guard and right tackle this season and while he gave up two pressures on 26 pass blocking snaps at right tackle, he has surrendered just one pressure on 106 pass blocking snaps at guard this season. The former fifth-round pick might be pushed into starting duties at right guard with the injury of Larry Warford, but the Saints may not see a drop-off at the position at all. Kelemete played in the second half against Green Bay in Week 7 and did not give up a single pressure on 18 pass blocking snaps even though he went up against one of the best interior defender duos in the NFL in Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark.

If it were up to me, Kelemete would already have a long-term deal ready to sign before he plays well and raises his value. Something like the four-year, $19.1-million ($5-million guaranteed) contract the New York Jets signed with former Seattle Seahawks offensive lineman James Carpenter. That would be a big step up from the two-year, $2.7-million deal (just $300,000 guaranteed) Kelemete has been playing under but wouldn’t break the bank for the Saints.

But that’s not how the Saints usually do business. We’ll have to be patient and see how Kelemete does with more responsibilities to manage. Here’s hoping he continues to excel.