Payton expects Max Unger (foot) back by preseason

The New Orleans Saints are optimistic that a key cog of their offensive line will be ready for the start of the regular season.

Coach Sean Payton told reporters Saturday that he expects center Max Unger, who recently underwent surgery on an injured foot, to be ready by Week 3 ... of the preseason.

"At the end of the season, on the X-ray, he had a little bit of a space there, where you call a Lisfranc," Payton explained. "You can make one of two decisions. Dr. Anderson ... felt like, hey, let's rest it. No need for procedure. When we got back started in the offseason program, it had increased a little bit. So he felt like putting a screw in it now is going to allow him plenty of time to rehab.

"We anticipate probably early August. I see him being able to possibly get into the preseason. Our goal would be Week 3."

This is a far more hopeful estimate than Unger's original diagnosis. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported at the time of the surgery that Unger was expected to miss at least five months, keeping him out of the lineup until around October. Payton's estimate has Unger back six weeks earlier.

Under Payton's timeline, New Orleans would have its anchor in-line for the opening quarter of the season, which includes games against their new back's old team in the Vikings, the Super Bowl champion Patriots, the division-rival Panthers and the playoff-hungry Dolphins in London. Whether Unger would be the difference maker in any or all of those games is as of now presumptuous. But it never hurts to open the season with all of your starters.

If anything, the expected mid-August return makes New Orleans less likely to go after a replacement center in free agency. Nick Mangold had been whispered as a potential target, but those rumors should fade away.

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