METAIRIE, La. – Zach Strief's negotiating skills aren’t very impressive at this stage of his career.
His loyalty to the New Orleans Saints? That’s another story.
The 10th-year offensive tackle said this week that he will keep coming back to play for the Saints “until they tell me to stop coming” -- even if that means playing a backup role next season.
But if the Saints do let him go, Strief said he has no interest in playing for another team.
“No. (I’d be) done,” Strief said. “You can’t say that, I guess, but my assumption would be that no, I’m not playing anywhere else.”
That kind of allegiance to a team is rare in the NFL but as Strief said, “My situation is rare in this league.”
He has now lasted 10 years in New Orleans -- the past five as a starter -- after being drafted in the seventh round out of Northwestern as part of the Saints’ remarkable 2006 draft class.
Strief talked earlier this year about how special it was for him to prove his late college coach Randy Walker right. Walker gave a rare endorsement of Strief to Saints coach Sean Payton, vowing that he would be a 10-year starter for him.
"I feel like, for me personally, I'm happier saying that I only played for this team,” said Strief, who said he plans to keep living in New Orleans after he retires. “You get to a point where it's like 'well, what are you playing for?' And at this point in my career I'm not playing for money. I'm not gonna go somewhere just to make another (unspecified amount).
"To me, it's more beneficial since I'm going to stay here and I'm going to live here to say, ‘No, I refuse to play for anyone else but the Saints.’”
Strief, 32, still has two years left on his contract. He has remained a solid starter at right tackle -- though he has appeared to have a slight drop-off this season compared to 2013 and 2014.
The bigger hurdle for Strief coming back is that the Saints drafted his eventual replacement, Andrus Peat, in the first round of this year’s draft. It’s hard to imagine Peat spending another year as a backup in 2016, and standout left tackle Terron Armstead certainly isn’t going anywhere.
Strief could certainly come back to compete with Peat for the starting job and provide insurance at both tackle spots but might have to agree to a pay cut to do so. He is due to make $3.5 million in salary and bonuses next season, and the Saints will have to trim a significant amount of salary-cap space.
"I would say, as long as they want me back here, and we can all come to an agreement what's that's gonna mean financially, yes, I will be here,” said Strief, though he acknowledged that he appreciates there is some uncertainty beyond Sunday’s finale at the Atlanta Falcons.
“I don’t feel like I’m done. I really don’t,” Strief said. “(But) at this point, I'm fine no matter what. I'm proud of being around as long as I have and would be honored to come back. It's not something I can really control. And I think you appreciate every game at this point in your career, knowing it could be your last.”
Strief isn’t alone. The future is somewhat uncertain for all five of the remaining members of New Orleans’ 2009 Super Bowl championship team (the others being quarterback Drew Brees, guard Jahri Evans, receiver Marques Colston and punter Thomas Morstead).
Brees remains very confident that he will be back -- as he should.
Evans also recently expressed a great deal of confidence that he will be back after he agreed to a pay cut as part of a three-year deal this past offseason.
"Listen, me and Coach Payton talked this offseason, and I don't think I'm going anywhere,” Evans said. “Trust me, I doubt if that happens. I won't be out of a job soon if it does.”
Colston has not talked yet about his future while he’s been dealing with a chest injury that sidelined him this past Sunday and has him questionable for this week’s finale. He also expressed that it’s not about money for him at this stage of his career when he agreed to a pay cut this past offseason.
Among other prominent Saints whose future is uncertain is tight end Benjamin Watson, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at age 35.
Watson has defied Father Time by posting the best numbers of his career this season, with 68 catches for 766 yards and five TDs. The father of five said he and his family will have to evaluate whatever opportunities come next -- especially since he has other aspirations as a possible broadcaster, author and minister.
“Really it’s something that we have to pray on as a family, make a family decision, when it comes to football and the commitment that it takes to play the game at that level and be all-in for those seven or eight months. ... But I think that I’m here for a purpose, and it’s more than a game,” said Watson, who talked about the unique bond with teammates in the NFL.
One thing Watson said he won’t do is “worry yourself to death” as he did in the past as a free agent.
“We’re past that,” Watson said. “Just wait and see and let it unfold.”