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Saints don’t lack for options in replacing Max Unger

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The Saints will have plenty of time to figure out who’s replacing the starting center, and luckily there’s a number of guys ready to fill in.

GLENDALE, AZ - New Orleans Saints offensive lineman Senio Kelemete (65) steps up against the Arizona Cardinals defense at University of Phoenix Stadium.
GLENDALE, AZ - New Orleans Saints offensive lineman Senio Kelemete (65) steps up against the Arizona Cardinals defense at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We all woke up Monday morning to see NFL Network reporter Ian Rapoport breaking some bad news: New Orleans Saints center Max Unger is expected to miss the 2017 season opener with a foot injury. Not long after Rapoport’s initial report, Times-Picayune beat writer Herbie Teope confirmed that Unger had re-injured the foot that gave him trouble throughout the 2016 season, and there isn’t yet a timetable for his return:

Speculation is still rampant, but it’s believed that Unger suffered a Lisfranc fracture that will put him out of action for almost five months. Rapoport suggested that Unger may start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) designation, which means he would have to sit out the first six weeks of the 2017 NFL season. If this happens, Unger would not be eligible to return until Week 7, a road game against the Green Bay Packers. He would have a four-week window to practice and play or revert to Injured Reserve if he’s unable to pass a physical. But this is all speculation, and the Saints have not specified Unger’s injury.

Anyone who knows what they’re talking about knows how important Unger’s absence will be to the team; that’s clear from watching games and seeing how Unger performs on a snap-to-snap basis. The Saints originally invested a 2015 fourth round pick (#114 that year) as part of a trade with the Seattle Seahawks to get Unger; Jimmy Graham was also part of that trade, sent to the Pacific Northwest in exchange for a 2015 first round pick (#31).

If you want to argue which team won that trade, Graham has scored eight times in twenty-seven games for Seattle. Unger has consistently graded out as a top five player at his position by people who are paid to evaluate offensive linemen.

But back to the point. Right now, the Saints don’t know how long Unger will be out. They’ve got solutions in-house already, though they aren’t pretty. They could also get crazy and think outside the box a little. Let’s review:

Next Man Up

NEW ORLEANS, LA - New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) celebrates a touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons defense with Saints offensive lineman Senio Kelemete at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
NEW ORLEANS, LA - New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) celebrates a touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons defense with Saints offensive lineman Senio Kelemete at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
  • Senio Kelemete: For my money, Kelemete will be the starter in 2017. He’s been a quality backup for the Saints for a few years now, seeing the occasional start at center, guard, and even left tackle (memorably shutting down Vic Beasley near the end of the 2015 season). Kelemete is turning 27 years old in a few days and is scheduled to be a free agent in the spring. If he plays well in Unger’s absence, it could mean a big payday for him and his family. The best-case scenario is Kelemete outplays Unger even after returning from injury and the Saints re-sign him long-term, locking in their starting five linemen for the next half-decade.
ARLINGTON, TX - Jack Allen (66) of the Michigan State Spartans warms up prior to the Goodyear Cotton Bowl against the Alabama Crimson Tide at AT&T Stadium.
ARLINGTON, TX - Jack Allen (66) of the Michigan State Spartans warms up prior to the Goodyear Cotton Bowl against the Alabama Crimson Tide at AT&T Stadium.
Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images
  • Jack Allen, Michigan State Spartans: Allen was my favorite undrafted free agent signing last year. I liked his movement skills on pull blocks and ability to get into the perimeter and second level quickly, throwing blocks for the ball-carrier behind him. But Allen struggled in preseason exhibition games, often getting overpowered by larger defensive linemen (he’s undersized at 6-foot-1, 295-pounds. How crazy is the NFL that a 295-pound human is undersized?). Allen spent most of the 2016 season on the practice squad before being called up to the active roster late in the year, so maybe he’s developed into a contender to start.
Lincoln, NE, - Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles center Cameron Tom (70) stretches before preparing to snap the football against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the second half at Memorial Stadium.
Lincoln, NE, - Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles center Cameron Tom (70) stretches before preparing to snap the football against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the second half at Memorial Stadium.
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports
  • Cameron Tom, Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles: Tom is a sneaky good undrafted signing. He’s a two-time All-Conference USA First Team listing who finished his career at USM with 27 consecutive starts. Tom is a little underweight (listed at 289-pounds) and a little taller (6-foot-4) than you’d prefer at center, but he’s very athletic for the position and is one of the smarter guys you’ll find on a football field. The Saints prioritized Tom’s signing after the draft and may have considered drafting him in the seventh round if they hadn’t traded that pick in a package to get Tennessee Vols running back Alvin Kamara. I like Tom’s potential fit in New Orleans and expect him to at least compete with Landon Turner for the eighth offensive line roster spot, if not push Allen for the backup center job behind Kelemete.

Available Free Agents

GLENDALE, AZ - New York Jets center Nick Mangold (74) gets set to snap the ball against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium.
GLENDALE, AZ - New York Jets center Nick Mangold (74) gets set to snap the ball against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
  • Nick Mangold, New York Jets: The 33-year-old, two-time All-Pro, seven-time Pro Bowl center has been a popular name among worried Saints fans in the wake of Unger’s injury and surgery. Mangold was released earlier this spring to free up salary cap space for the rudderless Jets, but it’s not known how much he has to give (remember Olin Kreutz’ brief time with the Saints before retirement?). If the Saints get through summer practices and aren’t satisfied with their in-house replacements, Mangold should be the first name they reach out to before training camp. I wouldn’t expect him to command a high salary, but things may get tricky if Unger returns and Mangold is playing at a high level. That’s a lot of resources tied up between two aging linemen at the same position.
GLENDALE, AZ - Ryan Wendell (62) and Tom Brady (12) of the New England Patriots celebrate after a scoring play in the second half during Super  Bowl XLIX against the Seattle Seahawks at University of Phoenix Stadium.
GLENDALE, AZ - Ryan Wendell (62) and Tom Brady (12) of the New England Patriots celebrate after a scoring play in the second half during Super Bowl XLIX against the Seattle Seahawks at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
  • Ryan Wendell, Carolina Panthers/New England Patriots: Wendell may be a more realistic free agent pickup for the Saints. The longtime Patriots starter was displaced by younger, cheaper players in 2015 and spent much of 2016 waiting for someone to sign him. The Panthers eventually brought him on board to replace injured starters in Ryan Kalil and Gino Gradkowski. Wendell played well, not spectacularly, and now finds himself in the same position at 34 years old. If the Saints think Mangold’s asking price is too high or if he signs with someone else, they could do much worse than to bring Wendell in as a band-aid until Unger is ready to step back into the lineup.

YOLO Trade Speculation

SAN DIEGO, CA - Miami Dolphins center Mike Pouncey (51) walks through the tunnel before a game against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium.
SAN DIEGO, CA - Miami Dolphins center Mike Pouncey (51) walks through the tunnel before a game against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
  • Mike Pouncey, Miami Dolphins: Let’s start this fun section with the least-to most-likely outcome. Pouncey is still fairly young for a talented interior linemen (he’s just 27, the same age as Kelemete) but he’s a dynamic force inside single-handedly responsible for setting up some of Jay Ajayi’s long scoring runs last year. Pouncey plays with a mean streak that’s evident to see. He has struggled with hip injuries similar to Saints linebacker Dannell Ellerbe lately, playing just five games in 2016 and fourteen in 2015, but if the Saints are comfortable with his medicals and want a younger long-term starter in Unger’s place he’s the gambling man’s choice. The Dolphins have some incentive in trading Pouncey given his contract structure; he carries $5 million in dead money hit in 2017 (a salary cap hit of $8.975 million), but that number drops to $3 million in guarantees over the next two years. If the Saints really are all-in on 2017 being Brees’ last shot at a playoffs berth, getting Pouncey will confirm it.
PHILADELPHIA, PA, - Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (11) lines up behind center Jason Kelce (62), offensive guard Stefen Wisniewski (61), and offensive guard Isaac Seumalo (73) against the Green Bay Packers at  Lincoln Financial Field.
PHILADELPHIA, PA, - Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (11) lines up behind center Jason Kelce (62), offensive guard Stefen Wisniewski (61), and offensive guard Isaac Seumalo (73) against the Green Bay Packers at Lincoln Financial Field.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
  • Jason Kelce, Philadelphia Eagles: Goofy Philadelphia sports media types started speculating on this trade the second Unger’s injury was reported. For some reason, they - and national observers - think that Mark Ingram, he who matched Dallas Cowboys rookie sensation Ezekiel Elliot in yards-per-carry last year, is on the trading block. That bad take is born of ignorance about how the Saints use their running backs and confusion as to how Ingram can coexist with Kamara and Adrian Peterson, but that’s neither here nor there. For what it’s worth, Eagles team brass had the same notion and approached the Saints about an Ingram-for-Kelce trade, per Kyle Scott of CrossingBoard.com (I don’t think it’s worth much). Kelce, 30-years old this December, had a rough 2016, playing better down the stretch, but he’s not someone the Saints should exchange any valuable assets for. If the Eagles want a late-round draft pick or Travaris Cadet, the Saints should pull the trigger.
DETROIT, MI - Detroit Lions center Travis Swanson (64) celebrates a touchdown with tight end Eric Ebron (85) and receiver Golden Tate (15) during a game against the Minnesota Vikings at Ford Field.
DETROIT, MI - Detroit Lions center Travis Swanson (64) celebrates a touchdown with tight end Eric Ebron (85) and receiver Golden Tate (15) during a game against the Minnesota Vikings at Ford Field.
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
  • Travis Swanson, Detroit Lions: How’s this for a sleeper? Swanson started at a solid level for the Lions before missing the last five games to a nasty concussion, but now he’s cleared to play out the final year of his rookie contract. He’s just 26 years old and could have a good year in New Orleans playing next to his former teammate in Larry Warford. The Lions already drafted Swanson’s replacement last year in Graham Glasgow, so Swanson may come cheaply if the Saints are interested. Like Kelemete, he could be a nice young player to roll the dice on (though it would probably cost a late-round 2018 NFL Draft pick, or a fringe player like Cadet. Someone please trade for Travaris Cadet). If the Saints are up for trading future assets to replace Unger, I’d prefer they pursue someone low-key like Swanson.