Bradley Handwerger / Sports Reporter
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METAIRIE, La. Jermon Bushrod didn't come into the NFL and set the world on fire as a rookie.

Not that he expected to, coming from Towson University, a small program without a large NFL pedigree.

It wasn't until 2009, his third year in the league, that he earned his first snaps on offense as a left tackle.

Three years later, he's about to become a highly-marketable left tackle, one that could become highly paid at one of the league's most important positions.

Sunday, when the Saints (7-8) host the Panthers (6-9) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Bushrod could be playing his last game with New Orleans.

And that's something that saddens him.

'It crosses my mind all the time and it kind of gets you down if you think about it too much but at the end of the day, it's something I have no control over and it's something that I'm going to worry about when our season is over and done,' Bushrod said this week.

Two years ago, he was in a similar position. A free agent on the open market, he ultimately decided on signing a two-year $9.6 million contract keeping him in New Orleans.

In that time he has started 33 consecutive games including the playoffs and, in 2011, earned a Pro Bowl berth, his first.

His 2012 hasn't been as good as his 2011 Pro Football Focus has him rated as only the 21st-best rated left tackle in the league this year. Football Outsiders, meanwhile, praised him prior to the season, saying he 'will still get flagged for some sloppy holds but is solid overall.'

Indeed, he's the most-penalized Saints offensive linemen, but not for holding. He has been flagged only once for holding while five of his six penalties have been false starts. None, however, ended up stalling an offensive drive.

That, however, means very little in the grand scheme of things. What does matter is that quarterback Drew Brees, the man whose blindside he's protecting, believes in him.

'JermonBushrodhas certainly cemented himself as one of the best left tackles in this league,' Brees said. 'Obviously I want him back, I'd love to have him back. I understand how this business works and everything else but we'll wait and see how that all transpires but, man, I really hope he's back with us.'For what it's worth, the Saints could be in for a bit of a hometown discount. Bushrod's significant other is a local girl and the couple has a newborn. He also loves the city and the organization. He also likes how the club handled his progress, only throwing him into the lineup when Jammal Brown went down with a hip injury in the 2009 preseason.

'The love I have for this place is pretty high,' he said. 'I've started a family here, I won a championship here, they've given me an opportunity, they've played it slow with me and didn't rush me out there, took their time with so I've been very appreciative of that.'

He has also made friends, some as close as any he has made in his life.

'The last couple of years have flown by and things like that,' Bushrod said. 'I don't know. I really don't like talking about it. It's a good position to be in but it's also a bad position to be in. I've established a great relationship with the guys in this room. I have a family here. But you've got to let the business side take care of itself and it will work out.'

Right tackle Zach Strief doesn't want to see his teammate go. They've become as close as anybody on the line, sharing a position and a trade.

But he also realizes that Bushrod has put himself in position, coming from Towson, to sign a career contract.

'I think what's most impressive to me is I think Jermon has improved as a starter every year that he has gotten that opportunity,' Strief said. 'Sometimes that can be hard for players to once you achieve what you want to achieve, can you go to the next level? Can you improve as a player? Can you get better? I think that this year, I think, has clearly been his best year in the NFL. It's a testament to his character and his work ethic here.'

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