Saints need to keep Strief from testing free agency

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The contract situation that’s going to garner the most scrutiny in New Orleans and indeed across the NFL this offseason is that of tight end Jimmy Graham. But he’s not the only big guy with a bounce-back season looking for a new contract in the Saints’ locker room.

Right tackle Zach Strief had a career year by most standards, and was Pro Football Focus’ highest graded right tackle through the 2013 regular season. He had an average year when run-blocking; the 69 runs attempted on either side of the right tackle last year yielded Saints running backs 193 yards and a touchdown – only 2.8 yards per carry; however, his pass protection was stellar. Strief allowed only three sacks on quarterback Drew Brees through the regular season – the lowest sack total he’s allowed in his career as a starter in the NFL.

The Saints have cap space currently totaling just under $5.2 million, but with players like Jimmy Graham, Brian De La Puente and Malcolm Jenkins yet to be re-signed, it’s no guarantee that Strief or any of the aforementioned free agents (save Graham) will be Saints come the season opener. Being one of the more highly sought-after free agent offensive linemen this offseason, Strief will have no trouble finding a new home should the Saints choose not to re-sign him.

Sean Payton and the Saints undoubtedly want their offensive captain and starting right tackle back, and it appears that the feeling is mutual. At the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Strief’s agent spoke of a “mutual interest” to work a deal out, saying that “there is a (willingness) to get something done on both sides, and we’ve had good meetings and discussions”.

Suppose, for a moment, that he doesn’t return to New Orleans. Who would replace him? The drop-off in rostered talent behind Strief is quite drastic. Bryce Harris’s performances last year showed us he still has a long way to go before becoming even a serviceable backup for the right tackle position.

If Strief leaves via free agency, his successor is clearly not currently on the roster and must either be drafted or found in free agency. A quick dive into the potential free agent pool at right tackle gives us precious few names to ponder.

One is ex-Falcon Tyson Clabo. The former undrafted free agent was given a one year “prove it” deal with the Dolphins last year. He started off dreadfully, surrendering 10 sacks in his first 10 games, before recovering in admirable fashion – giving up just one sack the rest of the way. His age (33) is a concern, but he could be a serviceable right tackle for a year for the Saints. It’s an option the Saints may look at while simultaneously drafting a right tackle to be groomed to take over the spot in 2015.

Another is Austin Howard, also an undrafted free agent, who manned the right tackle position for the Jets in the last two seasons. He’s much younger than Clabo – 26, soon to be 27 years of age – and has only two seasons of experience as a starter in the NFL. While he’s shown glimpses of being a great right tackle, his inconsistency has led him to be no more than a middle-of-the-pack guy at the position. In signing him, the Saints would be leaving a lot to chance – a regression to mediocrity from Howard would hurt the Saints almost as much as it would physically hurt Brees.

Michael Oher, the man more famous for being the main character of “The Blind Side” than for being the right tackle of the Ravens, is also set to be a free agent this offseason. However, he’s coming off one of his worst seasons as a pro. He’s decent in pass protection, but that doesn’t cover up for his awful run-blocking.

The Saints could draft someone to step into the position as a starter from day one, but they’d need to use a first or second round pick to do so. Unlike last year however, it doesn’t look like any of the projected early-round tackles are forecasted to be particular good fits at right tackle.

What I alluded to earlier – picking up a veteran in free agency and drafting a late-round prospect to prepare to eventually take over the position – is more likely, in my opinion. Cameron Fleming, Billy Turner and Jack Mewhort (who I talked about here) are some of the guys I think can fit that role well.

With such poor alternatives available in free agency in terms of quality and choice and no true starter-potential right tackle available for the Saints to draft, it seems as if the best option for Loomis and Payton is to sign Strief to the contract he deserves and have him play his days out in New Orleans, for the city that drafted him. If that means allowing Brian De La Puente to walk in free agency, well I’m sure Jonathan Goodwin would like to return to the franchise he won a Super Bowl with.

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