Strief deal helps solidify Saints line

The New Orleans Saints have been making some tough decisions to part ways with veteran players throughout their roster this offseason. But longtime right tackle Zach Strief is one they didn’t want to let get away.

The Saints agreed to a five-year deal with Strief on Monday, which a league source confirmed is worth up to $20.5 million, with $8.4 million guaranteed and a first-year salary-cap cost of around $2 million. That’s pretty good value compared to the other right tackles in free agency this year. And it keeps some stability on the Saints’ offensive line.

The Saints have already made one change to their line, with 2013 rookie Terron Armstead taking over the left tackle job late last season. And they may make another change, depending on whether they re-sign free-agent center Brian de la Puente.

But the transition shouldn’t be too harsh either way, with Strief and guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs serving as veteran leaders.

Strief, 30, arguably had his best season to date in 2013 (though he was also excellent when he first took over as the Saints’ starter in 2011). Strief was the Saints’ most consistent lineman throughout the 2013 season, especially in pass protection. He was named the first-team right tackle on ESPN NFL Insider John Clayton’s All-Pro team. And he was the highest-rated right tackle in the NFL by Pro Football Focus.

As I wrote when I broke down New Orleans’ free agents last month, Strief is one of those rare examples of a player who seems to get more credit from national analysts than the Saints’ fan base. Some of that is the nature of the right tackle position, in general. And some of that is because Strief struggled in 2012 -- in part because of a nagging groin injury.

Strief (6-7, 320) isn’t a “mauler” at the line. But he’s about as solid as they come in every area of the game. With his size, he’s naturally a strong run blocker. And he’s also athletic enough to be a very good pass protector and to get out in front of the screen passes the Saints like to run so often. Strief allowed only three sacks last season (though he also committed a costly holding penalty late in the playoff loss at Seattle).

Strief is also a highly-respected leader in the locker room. He was voted as an offensive captain the last two years and as a union representative for the Saints. He’s also been a media “good guy” award winner.

Strief, who joined the team as a seventh-round pick out of Northwestern in 2006, is one of only six players still under contract from the Saints’ Super Bowl roster. Another, receiver Robert Meachem, is still unsigned as a free agent.

The deal seems to be a win-win for the Saints and Strief, who clearly wanted to stay in New Orleans if things worked out. Strief didn’t take any other free-agent visits, though his agent Ralph Cindrich spoke with other teams while continuing to negotiate with the Saints.

Strief’s deal is slightly below the reported average value of other veteran right tackles who left their teams to sign elsewhere this offseason (Michael Oher, four years, $20 million with the Tennessee Titans; and Breno Giacomini, four years, $18 million with the New York Jets). Younger right tackles Austin Howard and Anthony Collins reportedly signed five-year deals worth $30 million.

Strief’s signing bonus is $5.5 million and his first-year base salary is $900,000, which is why the first-year salary-cap hit is so low. He is due to receive a total of $12.3 million in the first three years.