Zach Strief knows his approach to free agency differed from almost any other NFL player. He’s also completely comfortable with his thought process.
Nearly two months after re-signing with the Saints without looking anywhere else, Strief explained his rationale Monday as he played in the 23rd annual Saints Hall of Fame Celebrity Golf Classic at the Chateau Golf and Country Club in Kenner.
“A lot of people think the grass is greener on the other side,” he said. “I don’t understand it completely. If you’re happy and smart, you take a hometown discount.”
Strief, a nine-year veteran offensive tackle who has spent his entire NFL career in New Orleans, signed a five-year contract that included a $5.5 million signing bonus, $8.4 million in guaranteed money and as much as $20.5 million for the entire deal according to Advocate sources. His base salary next season will be $900,000.
He did not sweat the details, though. His only concern for free agency was whether the Saints would make him an offer, allowing the Milford, Ohio, native to extend his stay in his adopted city.
“I’ve been here long enough to call it home basically,” he said. “I don’t think anyone wants to leave their home. The thought of going somewhere in Year 9 and making a first impression again was not real appealing to me, and yet I tried really hard to be mentally prepared for that possibility because it was very possible that I was leaving. I’m glad it worked out how it did. It certainly was the best for me, and I’m glad to be here.”
In the Sean Payton-Mickey Loomis era, starting centers Jeff Faine (Tampa Bay) and Jonathan Goodwin (San Francisco), guard Carl Nicks (Tampa Bay) and tackle Jermon Bushrod (Chicago) all left New Orleans as free agents. Strief, a former seventh-round draft pick who has started at right tackle the last three seasons, refused to join them.
He let his agent, Ralph Cindrich, know his preference from the start.
“He’s unlike almost any other agent, and was very much on board with me staying,” Strief said. “Literally what I told him was get me something fair, and that’s fine. At least I know I’ll be happy with this. You can give me $5 million more and I might be miserable somewhere else. They say live within your means, and my means are pretty good.”
His production last year was pretty good, too. Starting a career-high 15 games, he was a reliable part of a line that otherwise was up and down for much of the year before jelling in the postseason. After never rushing for 100 yards in back-to-back games during the regular season, the Saints gained more than 100 yards on the ground in back-to-back playoff games for the first time in team history.
The highlight was a bruising 185-yard effort at Philadelphia in New Orleans’ first playoff victory at an opponent’s stadium.
“More than anything, we really got comfortable with what we were good at,” Strief said. “We really just found 10 ways to run the same play. That was real effective for us, and we’ll take some of that into next year knowing what this group in particular is good at. It’s not the groups of Bushrod and Carl Nix, which were good at certain things. Now there’s a new group, and we’re good at some other types of things. We’re kind of figuring that out.”
They will continue that process without Brian de la Puente, the latest center to depart New Orleans via free agency. The rest of the line returns intact — Strief, guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs and left tackle Terron Armstead, who started the final two games of the regular season and both playoff games.
De la Puente’s ostensible replacement, Tim Lelito, started twice at right guard last season and played in all 16 games after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Grand Valley State.
Strief anticipates some stiff competition for Lelito by the start of training camp.
“I think they are going to bring in as many good players as they can and kind of throw it up for grabs in camp,” he said. “Tim is going to be a good player.
“He still has a lot to learn still, but that’s a good place to learn between two really good players in Jahri and Ben. We’ll see.”