Zach Strief finds himself in a place few NFL players ever get to be.
At peace and still playing at a high level.
Strief remains remarkably healthy as he heads into the 12th season of his career, coming off of an impressive campaign that earned him widespread acclaim for his work against the NFL’s best pass rushers last fall.
New Orleans drafted Strief’s eventual replacement in April, a situation that would gnaw at the ego of most established starters around the league.
“For me, it’s perfect. I’ve been very clear that I’m playing a year at a time,” Strief said. “All these quarterbacks that want to play until they’re 100, I’m just not like that. There’s things that I’m ready to do. That being said, as long as I’m the starter, I’m going to be here.”
Any chance that Strief’s days as a starter could be in immediate jeopardy likely evaporated when Saints left tackle Terron Armstead tore a labrum in his shoulder during the team’s mandatory minicamp this week, knocking him out of action for the next four to six months and altering the team’s plans for rookie tackle Ryan Ramczyk, the player the Saints drafted to ultimately take over for Strief some day.
Ramcyzk likely would have had a hard time unseating Strief anyway.
The 33-year-old is coming off of one of his best seasons. Handed a schedule last season that included Oakland’s Khalil Mack, New York’s Jason Pierre-Paul, Atlanta’s Vic Beasley, Kansas City’s Dee Ford, Seattle’s Cliff Avril and Denver’s Von Miller — all of whom rush primarily from the left side — Strief played excellent football, and he never gave up a sack to one of those big names.
“Zach is so smart,” offensive line coach Dan Roushar said. “He really understands our system, being in it as long as he has.”
Physically, Strief has been fortunate. When he went into team doctors for his annual physical this spring, his orthopedic assessment took a minute and a half, and in his words, he can see, he can hear, he can still bend his enormous 6-foot-7 frame down and touch his toes. When he gets up in the morning, Strief doesn’t hurt, and that’s something that not a lot of 33-year-old football players can truthfully say.
Strief is also one of the best teachers the Saints have.
Over the course of 11 seasons in the NFL, Strief has accumulated a wealth of offensive line knowledge, and it makes him a resource for the rest of the offensive line.
“He’s Yoda, pretty much,” new Saints guard Larry Warford said. “He knows how the body functions and how we have to apply it through offensive line play. Just getting to talk to him and pick his brain a little bit is invaluable.”
Getting motivated to take on the Von Millers and Khalil Macks of the world during the season is the easy part.
Heading to the squat rack on a dreary day in the offseason is a whole lot tougher.
“It’s the offseason that’s hard mentally for me; lifting and running is the hard part,” Strief said. “Because ultimately, you have to train harder. I used to be able to come back and run for two weeks and be in shape. Now it’s like six weeks to really get into that type of shape, so are you able to maintain or increase that load required to get where you need to be? Once the season starts, it’s a routine that we all are very comfortable with. I think I probably feel better in-season now than I did seven or eight years ago.”
Ramczyk’s arrival has helped keep this offseason fresh.
Unlike a lot of veterans, who would bristle at preparing a rookie to eventually replace them, Strief relishes the opportunity.
“To have a guy like Ryan that’s asking questions. … that’s exciting for me, because it isn’t just like come out and practice running the same plays I’ve run for a decade,” Strief said. “Shoot, I’ve played against the same guy (defensive end Cameron Jordan) every day for seven years. There is a little bit of monotony to that, and now there’s a new guy to watch and teach.”
Armstead’s injury means Strief will now be preparing Ramczyk to hopefully be his bookend this season, allowing the rest of the Saints offensive line to remain unchanged.
But ultimately, the Saints hope Ramczyk will take over at the right tackle spot Strief has manned so capably.
Strief would love to see the same thing.
“It would be ideal for me here to have a clean transition and have him go on and play 10 years,” Strief said. “I’d be proud to be a part of that.”
Strief has already started preparing for life after football. Among other things, Strief is an investor in the Port Orleans Brewing Co. that opened in May on Tchoupitoulas.
If it was time to retire now, Strief could rest in the knowledge that he’s accomplished far more than a seventh-round pick is ever expected to contribute.
But Strief still has a prominent role to play.
“My career has been more successful than I ever imagined it would, and again, I don’t have any desire to stick around for years and years and years hanging onto it,” Strief said. “When it’s time, it’s time, and I think that’ll naturally kind of play itself out. It’s not right now. I’m playing good and feeling good, and I’m still moving, and I don’t hurt, but that time will come, and I think I’ll be ready for that.”