METAIRIE, La. — Just listening to Zach Strief talk two days after the Saints’ season-ending loss to Seattle wasn’t enough.
You had to take tone into account and on Monday, tone told you everything you needed to know about his future with New Orleans, the only NFL franchise he has ever known.
“I was telling guys I don’t think I’ve ever actually cleaned my locker out empty,” said Strief, one of 15 unrestricted free agents for the Saints. “I’ve cleaned it up, but never emptied it, which is … it’s not the fun part.”
Strief is but one of the big decisions the Saints will have to make in regard to re-signing this offseason.
But he’s not the biggest.
Jimmy Graham, selected nearly unanimously as this year’s All-Pro tight end, is up for a new contract and it’s expected to be a big one. He tied the single-season touchdown record by a tight end this season with 16 and led the Saints with 1,215 receiving yards on a team-high 86 catches.
The Saints have options with him – signing him to a long-term contract being the best one – but an already tight salary cap situation combined with what the team does with Graham could limit New Orleans’ offseason abilities.
One way or another, though, Graham will likely be back even with New Orleans reportedly more than $12 million over the cap.
“I have to figure out what’s going to happen,” said Graham, who could also be franchise tagged as a tight end or receiver, a difference of roughly $4.5 million. “We’ll see. Obviously, this is a great city, a great team. I love Drew Brees. I told them I would like to retire with him. Hopefully it will happen.”
For those unimpressed with Graham’s postseason, when he caught just four passes for 52 yards, coach Sean Payton cautions about tying that performance into the team’s long-term plans for the tight end.
“We have smart fans,” Payton said. “They’re smart enough to understand that, just like we have in years past, we’re going to make the decisions as best we can for our club moving forward and they’re going to be able to read closely between the lines and understand that we’re going to be in good shape.”
Yet, Graham isn’t the only one the Saints will take a close look at between now and March 11, when free agency begins.
Besides Strief, safety Malcolm Jenkins (a four-year starter) and center Brian de la Puente (a three-year starter) also will hit the free agency market. All would certainly like to be back, but all also understand the situation.
“We’ll obviously talk to the Saints,” Jenkins said. “I love this city, I love being here, I love this team. But this league doesn’t work like that. The lucky ones stay with their team the whole time. We’ll just have to see and let time tell.”
Added de la Puente, “I like the guys, I like the locker room. I like the coaches, the front office. And I think that’s big in this business. That’ll all take care of itself. The last three years, personally, I’ve put together a good body of work and the rest has got to take care of itself.”
Still, of the group, Strief is the longest-tenured.
He was drafted by the Saints in the seventh round of 2006. He’s one of only seven players left who were on Payton’s original roster.
Playing his first nearly fully healthy season, Strief was among the best at his position, according to ProFootballFocus.com. He allowed just three sacks and just four quarterback hits. And while quarterback Drew Brees took the second-most drop-backs in the NFL, Strief allowed only 26 hurries.
“I really do feel like I played well this year,” Strief said. “I’m proud of what I did here. I don’t walk out of this building today with regrets or woulda, shoulda, couldas. I feel like I’ve given what I could give this season. You let it go and you say whatever happens, happens.”
What he hopes happens is that the Saints sign him to another contract. New Orleans has become home for the lineman, who rides in Bacchus and supports Café Reconcile. Not to mention his affinity for his teammates and the organization that he helped to win a Super Bowl in 2009.
He understands the NFL world, however.
“Obviously, I’ve been here for eight years and I don’t want to go anywhere,” Strief said. “I feel like I’m a part of this organization and I really feel like they feel the same way about me. And yet, there’s times when you can see in the past – Jonathan Goodwin came up, Jermon Bushrod came up – guys that both sides wanted to mutually stay and yet the business side of it gets in the way sometimes.”
Unrestricted Free Agent
OT Charles Brown
DL Kenyon Coleman
LB Keyunta Dawson
C Brian de la Puente
TE Jimmy Graham
K Shayne Graham
LB Parys Haralson
LB Will Herring
LB Ramon Humber
S Malcolm Jenkins
QB Luke McCown
WR Robert Meachem
S Jordan Pugh
RT Zach Strief
LB Jonathan Vilma
Restricted Free Agent
S Rafael Bush
FB Jed Collins
DT Tom Johnson
WR Joe Morgan
Exclusive Rights Free Agent
OL Bryce Harris
DB Trevin Wade