As a teammate on the Saints’ offensive line, Zach Strief couldn’t be happier with the experience Terron Armstead and Tim Lelito accumulated as rookies last season.
But that won’t count for as much as it could if he and fellow veterans Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs don’t take it from there and offer all the help they can to their younger compatriots.
“At this point in my career, that’s as much as a part of my job (as anything else),” Strief said Tuesday after he participated in a celebrity golf shootout at TPC Louisiana.
“(It’s) trying to pass on knowledge and things that I’ve learned, whether it’s about football or being a professional or about life.”
It’s possible Strief’s never been in a better position to accomplish that. The right tackle, who’s been with the Saints since his rookie year in 2006, was arguably the top performer of a line that sent guards Grubbs and Evans to the Pro Bowl in 2013.
The website Pro Football Focus said he surrendered just three sacks and four hits on quarterback Drew Brees, commander of one of the most pass-heavy offenses in the NFL and the MVP of the franchise’s sole Super Bowl victory a little more than four years ago.
Strief had just two holding penalties — the fewest among the Saints who began the season as starting offensive linemen — and one false start. In his second straight season as an offensive captain for the Saints, he earned the seventh-highest rating among tackles in the NFL from Pro Football Focus, prompting coach Sean Payton to declare Strief’s season the best of his career.
So it wasn’t very surprising that, six days after Strief became an unrestricted free agent in March, New Orleans re-signed him to a five-year deal. The contract gives the former seventh-round pick out of Northwestern a chance to finish his career in black and gold.
“It’s so rare,” Strief said at the prospect of staying with one team for the duration of a lengthy career. “I’m very fortunate ... to be with a first-class organization ... in a city that just loves you and embraces you.”
But with the new contract in hand, Strief has moved on to more pressing matters. Chief among them is assisting the development of Armstead and Lelito.
Payton inserted Armstead into the starting lineup at left tackle after benching Charles Brown in the middle of a Week 15 defeat at St. Louis and is now with the New York Giants.
Armstead, a third-round draft selection out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, struggled in the first half of a Week 16 loss at Carolina, in which the Saints essentially lost the NFC South title to the Panthers.
But he then settled in well as New Orleans made a charge to the divisional round of the postseason.
Meanwhile, Lelito — signed as an undrafted free agent out of Grand Valley State — filled in for two games that four-time All-Pro Evans sat out because of injuries.
In the first, a win against Arizona in Week 3, he surrendered three quarterback sacks at right guard to three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Darnell Dockett.
In the second, a victory at Atlanta in Week 12, he improved by all measures. And he might compete for the job left vacant by Brian de la Puente, who was the starting center in New Orleans from 2011 to 2013 and recently departed for Chicago in free agency.
Strief applauded the character Armstead and Lelito showed preparing for their big moments, calling them “good kids” for whom the Saints wouldn’t mind bending over backwards.
He also said both handled their first seasons as pros as well as anyone could expect. He pointed out that Armstead hailed from a school that competes in the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly Division I-AA.
He couldn’t even recall to which league Lelito’s Division II school belonged — for the record, it’s the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
“Look, you think it’s bad going from the SEC to the NFL?” Strief said. “Try going from (Armstead’s and Lelito’s schools) to the NFL. ... There’s some eye-opening experiences.”
More surely lie ahead. However, during a school appearance in Metairie on Wednesday, Lelito and Armstead said they know they’re in quality care under the tutelage of Strief, Grubbs and Evans.
“Those guys have been in the league so long and have so much knowledge,” Lelito said. “Sometimes you just have to ... shut up and ... take as much notes as you can.”
Armstead added: “Being around those veterans and seeing the work that they put in, the preparation they put in, you would be doing yourself a (disservice) if you didn’t try to put in the same effort or even more.”