Zach Strief is the last man standing, the final member of the New Orleans Saints’ fabled draft class of 2006 left on a roster that keeps getting younger with each offseason.
The Saints released the two most decorated pieces of that class this offseason. Wide receiver Marques Colston and right guard Jahri Evans — for so long Strief’s partner on the right side of the offensive line — represented half of a foursome, along with quarterback Drew Brees, who spent a decade together in New Orleans.
Strief felt the emotional impact of those departures.
“Jah was hard, Marques Colston was hard, Ben Watson was hard — and he hasn’t even been around as much,” Strief said. “The guys that you get really close to, it’s hard to lose, especially those types of guys that have been pillars here. ... I feel older and older every day.”
Strief, 32, knew he likely was safe. From a financial standpoint, he carries a manageable $3.7 million salary-cap number, and cutting him would save only $400,000 against the 2016 cap — and Strief had made it clear he would do whatever it took to stay in New Orleans. From a football standpoint, he has missed just two games in the past three seasons and remains an established starter at tackle.
But the real reason Strief was sure he would be back for an 11th season was more personal. For the past four seasons, Strief has met with coach Sean Payton the day after the season ends for the exit interview, and Payton has always been very clear about the way the team views Strief moving forward.
“I’m fortunate that those guys have always been honest with me,” Strief said. “Kind of what they’ve said has always come true, so right or wrong, I take it as truth. They said they wanted me back, so I kind of knew early that’d be the case, which is nice.”
Strief has also been around the NFL long enough to know initial plans can change, depending on what opportunities the team finds during the offseason.
“And yet, if they’d changed their minds two weeks in, I wouldn’t have been shocked,” Strief said.
Strief, who will turn 33 in September, knows the Saints have a succession plan at right tackle.
New Orleans used the No. 13 pick of the 2015 draft to take Andrus Peat, whom the Saints envision taking over permanently on the right side at some point in his career. Peat started seven games in his rookie season: two at left tackle, four at left guard and one at right tackle. Now, New Orleans expects him to be a full-time starter in his second season in the NFL.
The only question is where Peat will play. During the first week of organized team activities, Peat lined up at right guard and right tackle, and he could fill Evans’ role if the Saints believe it will help them get the best five players on the field.
“Certainly we see him starting,” Payton said. “Whether it’s at right guard or right tackle, we’ve got some time and some flexibility with regards to that.”
Strief might feel older and older every day. But he hasn’t approached the offseason like somebody who is around primarily to provide experience, leadership and stability. Strief still has the work ethic that helped him rise from a seventh-round pick to the starting lineup, and he has put it to work under new offensive line coach Dan Roushar.
“The one thing that we’ve noticed in Zach: Not only is he an experienced guy, but he’s constantly working to become better,” Roushar said. “So we’ve seen really good improvement in a short period of time. I think his movement skills are improving, so that’s encouraging.”
The last man standing is still finding a way to take steps forward.