Brees keeping close tabs on Saints' changing line

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(Eds: Updates with comment, details and background. With AP Photos.)By BRETT MARTELAP Sports Writer

Drew Brees is coming to grips with the fact that a couple familiar faces will be missing from the table when he joins the offensive line for dinner each week.

That also means two new starters among the five guys protecting Brees on every play, a change that doesn't necessarily worry the New Orleans Saints' most important player, but does have his attention.

''Obviously those guys do a lot to keep me clean and keep me healthy,'' said Brees, who joins the linemen out for dinner in New Orleans every Thursday night during the season. ''But I think as a unit, it's one of the toughest groups to get all on the same page because it's the group with the most guys on the field at one time.

''There's five of those guys on the field. They're in every play, and they're grinding it out no matter how tired they are or what have you,'' Brees continued. ''They've got to be able to work together and communicate so well, so it's the group that takes the longest time to mesh, to jell.''

New Orleans lost its starting center for the past three seasons when Jonathan Goodwin opted to go to San Francisco in free agency. Then on Monday, coach Sean Payton stunned much of the locker room by released starting right tackle Jon Stinchcomb, an eight-year veteran who had started 80 straight regular-season games during the past five seasons.

Newly acquired veteran Olin Kreutz will take over at center, while either longtime reserve Zach Strief or 2010 second-round pick Charles Brown will be the right tackle.

Although Strief has been a reserve throughout his five-year career, all with New Orleans, he has played regularly. He has been routinely inserted into games throughout the last few seasons as an eligible tight end, usually in a blocking role. He also has started seven games at tackle because of injuries.

Strief could have left as a free agent this summer to seek a starting job somewhere else, but was confident New Orleans was serious about giving him a chance to work his way into a starting job.

''I tried to make sure the coaching staff knew that I wanted a chance to compete for the job,'' Strief said. ''It's just like anybody, you want a chance to start and show what you can do. Again, it's something I've worked at very hard and I need to continue to.''

The 2006 seventh-round pick out of Northwestern also suggested his familiarity with two-time Pro Bowl right guard Jahri Evans should eliminate communication problems on the right side of the line.

''Jahri was my roommate my rookie year,'' Strief said after practice Tuesday night. ''I've sat next to him in meetings. We speak kind of the same language, so for me and Jahri, it's easy.''

Brown, who played at Southern California, was hindered by injuries last season and again at the beginning of 2011 training camp, when he showed up with a strained hamstring. He returned to practice last week, and Payton said he is in the mix to start.

''He's done well in practice last week, his first week back,'' Payton said. ''He's athletic, he's smart. And I'm anxious to watch him and Zach during this process.''

Payton also said Brown is ''someone that knows what he's doing. Obviously him being healthy is important, as he's had the hamstring issue. But we feel like he's going to be someone, and Zach - both of them are going to fight it out.''

The offensive line had the same five starters for the past two seasons, but could have changed substantially had free agency turned out differently. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod was a free agent and left guard Carl Nicks was a restricted free agent. Both agreed to return.

Brees is a big proponent of continuity on the offensive line, but appears comfortable working with Kreutz, a 13-year veteran and six-time Pro Bowl center. He also has few doubts about Strief's ability to fit in. Brown still has a lot to prove, but the Saints clearly aren't counting him out.

''I'm very confident and very comfortable in the group that we have, despite the fact that we've had to say goodbye to both Jonathan Goodwin and Jon Stinchcomb,'' Brees said. ''But yeah, that's a group that obviously I take a big interest in.''

NOTES: Starting FS Malcolm Jenkins sat out Tuesday night's practice to rest a sore right knee. Payton said he expected Jenkins to return to practice by Thursday and to play in the Saints' second preseason game at Houston on Saturday night. ... Also sitting out practice were LB Ezra Butler (groin), LB Ramon Humber (right quad). LB Clint Ingram (right hamstring), DT Tom Johnson (left calf), CB Johnny Patrick (right knee), OT Alex Barron (left knee), and CB Leigh Torrence (right hip). ... DE Jeff Charleston (left ankle) was in uniform but did not participate in full team drills. ... The Saints signed RB Patrick Cobbs.

Tagged: Saints, 49ers, Drew Brees, Jonathan Goodwin, Jon Stinchcomb, Zach Strief, Jahri Evans, Charles Brown

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