METAIRIE, La. (AP) Jonathan Goodwin figures he could a better center now than when he left New Orleans after the 2010 season.
After all, he played in three straight NFC championship games - and one Super Bowl - with San Francisco during his time away.
''Mentally, I am better,'' Goodwin said Thursday, following his third offseason practice since he agreed to a deal bringing him back to New Orleans this week.
''You know, I had a lot more responsibilities in San Francisco. We did a lot of different things,'' Goodwin continued. ''It made me a lot smarter on the field.''
What Saints coaches are eager to see now is how the physical abilities of the 35-year-old Goodwin stack up against the next generation of centers on New Orleans' roster.
''Certainly, (Goodwin's) experience is going to put him in a position to compete,'' Saints offensive line coach Brett Ingalls said.
Even if Goodwin doesn't win back his old job, he's confident he can help shore up an offensive line that has seen significant turnover since he left for the 49ers as a free agent.
Right guard Jahri Evans is the only starter remaining from 2010.
Goodwin's primary competition for a starting job is second-year pro Tim Lelito, who saw limited action last season at guard, but now is being groomed as the Saints center of the future - if not the present.
Alluding to the cyclical nature of NFL careers, Goodwin said it's ''easy'' to serve as both Lelito's mentor and competitor during practice.
''I've been doing the same thing in San Francisco the past couple years with Daniel Kilgore,'' Goodwin said. ''You know, in this league, when a younger guy can play ... that's who they tend to go with.''
But Goodwin, now in his 13th season, appreciated the way veterans once helped him, ''So I have no problem doing it with Tim. We've already had conversations and I think we've already started building a relationship.
''Naturally, I wouldn't be out here if I didn't want to play,'' Goodwin continued. ''We're both going to fight each other tooth and nail. So either way, I think this team will be straight at the center position.''
The 6-foot-3, 318-pound Goodwin has been a full-time starter for six straight seasons, including from 2008 to 2010 in New Orleans. He has enjoyed a lot of success since then, never missing the playoffs since winning a Super Bowl with the Saints in the 2009 season. In four of his last five seasons, he's made it at least as far as the NFC title game.
The 6-4, 315-pound Lelito has just two career starts - both at guard - in his one NFL season, but coaches say they like his potential.
''We're looking at Tim as a developmental guy who has a chance to be outstanding at the position,'' Ingalls said. ''So I don't think until we get into training camp, maybe we play some preseason games, are we really going to see where we're at and who's ready to be that guy. The one thing about Goody is he brings so much experience - mentor-type status. He's going to help these young guys.''
Payton said it wouldn't be fair to consider Goodwin the favorite to start over Lelito simply because of their disparity in experience.
''Both those guys are going to have a good shot at playing for us,'' Payton said. ''You're never just given a position. Tim's done a lot of good things. We're excited about his progress. And a guy like Jonathan who obviously has played a long time - I think it'll make both of them better.''
However it pans out, Goodwin sounded certain he'd have no regrets about being back to the Big Easy.
''I look at New Orleans as my second home,'' said the South Carolina native, who kept his home in suburban New Orleans while he played in San Francisco. ''We love being here.''
Notes: Payton said safety Jairus Byrd, the Saints' top free-agent pick-up this offseason, is ''absolutely'' on pace to return from back surgery in time for training camp. Byrd walked out to practice on Thursday, standing on the sideline and wearing his No. 31 jersey as he observed various drills. ... DT John Jenkins and WR Joe Morgan did not participate in drills. Like Byrd, they were present, wearing jerseys. Morgan is recovering from a left knee injury which sidelined him all of last season. Jenkins had his left arm tucked underneath his jersey, but the Saints have not provided details about his condition and he has not been available for interviews.
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