NEW ORLEANS Fill in the blank.
That’s where we are on Mother’s Day 2017 when it comes to the man in the middle of the New Orleans Saints offensive line, the center of attention, Drew Brees’ righthand man if you will.
We don’t know for sure who’ll be snapping the ball to No. 9 when the Black and Gold open the regular season at Minnesota on ESPN, though all signs point to veteran Max Unger answering the bell the night of Monday, Sept. 11.
Unger recently underwent surgery to repair an old foot injury that had forced him to miss a game last season and limited his ability to practice in late December. Saints coach Sean Payton updated reporters Saturday at rookie minicamp, saying Unger suffered a Lisfranc injury and opted to have noted orthopedist Dr. Robert Anderson perform surgery when the injured foot didn’t get any better after months of prescribed rest.
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Payton said Unger is expected to return by Week 3 of the preseason, indicating the two-time Pro Bowl player would be ready to play against the Vikings in Week 1.
Suffice to say Unger will miss the Saints’ offseason program, Organized Team Activities and veteran minicamp and likely enter training camp on the league’s Active/PUP list. After that, it will be day to day for the centerpiece player who was acquired from Seattle in the Jimmy Graham trade in March 2015.
In the meantime, look for swingman Senio Kelemete and undrafted second-year center Jack Allen to get a crack with the first unit in Unger’s absence.
So why all the fuss?
For starters, Pro Football Focus ranked Unger as the 11th-best player at his position in 2016, and the NFL’s sixth-best pass-blocking center.
In addition, he’s usually the first protector for the face of the Saints franchise (Brees). Unger, 31, also is the captain of the O-line and helps puts his fellow blockers into the best possible position to succeed against opposing defenses.
In other words, Unger is invaluable, the secretary of the interior in every football sense.
In the Saints’ offense, the center and guards perhaps are more vital to the overall success than the tackles. Coach Sean Payton places great value on his interior linemen, especially in the passing game where it’s essential to keep a clean pocket so the 6-foot Brees has clear passing lanes.
Well-respected NFL scout/analyst Russ Lande paints a clear picture.
“The end rushers are not as big a concern to Drew as those who get immediate penetration right up the middle,’’ Lande said. “It’s always harder for a quarterback to move backwards and reset his feet when (interior rushers) get pushed into them. So the Saints need to be stout at center and guard. The interior linemen have to be quick out of their stance, aggressive with their hands and strong at the point of attack.
“In that offense you want those guards and center to be setting up quickly in terms of dealing with the games and stunts. They have to be able to get their hands on guys quickly so that they can stop that initial charge. You can’t have a clean pocket unless you can stop that initial charge. It doesn’t matter if Drew takes a three-, five- or seven-step drop, he has to be able to see over the line.
“When Drew’s in a deep drop,’’ he said, “he’s athletic enough and has such a good feel for the pocket that he can step up and handle the wide rushes. It’s a cakewalk for someone like Drew for sliding forward one step. But if the initial charge can get him off his point and make him move around, that’s where he runs into trouble in terms of throwing.’’
That’s why all the fuss about Unger.
Brian Allee-Walsh, a longtime Saints reporter based in New Orleans, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.