I view Zach Strief as the highest priority free agent for the Saints this offseason. That's not to say Jimmy Graham is a situation that needs to be dealt with, or that he's not a more important player to the Saints, but I view the risk of losing him as zero. There's an outside chance the Saints could trade him, I guess, but even then you're getting a return on him. In Strief's case, there's the strong risk he's lost outright. So I view that situation as a lot less reassuring. It's no secret the Saints' cap situation will require careful navigation this offseason, and even if Strief could be retained there's a price tag the Saints just won't be able to go over. We don't know what that figure is, but we can use clues to at least tell us what he'll realistically make.
First off, I just want to vocalize that I view Chicago (Aaron Kromer is their offensive coordinator), Buffalo (Doug Marrone, head coach), and Oakland (Dennis Allen, head coach) as possible suitors for Strief because these coaches all know what kind of character Strief is and the locker room benefit he brings. The Bills have veteran Erik Pears for one more season under contract at right tackle but he was average in performance last season. The Bears started a 5th round rookie last season, Jordan Mills out of Louisiana Tech, and he really struggled in 16 starts. The Raiders had Tony Pashos last year who is serviceable but old, and he's a free agent. Strief is 30 and coming off his best season as a pro, and this is possibly his last chance to get a good contract. I likened this situation a bit to Scott Fujita in 2010. Fujita was a good player and a great leader and he was coming off a great season, he wanted to stay in New Orleans, but the money the Browns offered was just too good to pass up. The Saints never came close to what the Browns were offering. I think while the Saints coaching tree will try to pluck him (Kromer and Allen in particular I'm confident are going to make a run), there could be a slew of other teams looking to upgrade at the offensive line. Good tackles are very hard to find and there are countless lines in shambles in the league.
So what is Strief's value exactly?
Well, you'll remember the Bears stole Jermon Bushrod from the Saints last offseason for 5 years, $36 million. Now, Bushrod is a left tackle, he was 28 last offseason, and he was just coming off his second Pro Bowl season. Strief is a right tackle, he's 30, and he's never been to the Pro Bowl. Still, he's also coming off his best season. I feel safe in saying Strief won't command that kind of money.
A more apt comparison perhaps last offseason was Gosder Cherilus, a right tackle. While Cherilus has never made a Pro Bowl, either, he was drafted in the 1st round back in 2008 and he was 28 last offseason (Strief was drafted in the 7th round, but clearly his value is much higher than that now). Cherilus was not re-signed by the Lions due to concerns over the health of his knee, but he was able to land a 5 year, $35 million deal with the Colts. That's right, just one million less than Bushrod to play right tackle for Andrew Luck. You see, teams are desperate to protect their young quarterbacks of the future.
For what it's worth, Zach Strief was rated as the 7th best tackle in the NFL this past year (left and right combined) by Pro Football Focus. That's pretty significant. Gosder Cherilus was rated 8th best the year before.
Eric Winston, on the slip side, signed just a 1 year deal for $1.25 million with the Cardinals last offseason as a right tackle after getting released by the Chiefs. He was 29 and has never been to the Pro Bowl, and he graded 26th best in 2012 on PFF.
Tyson Clabo was released by the Falcons last offseason at 31 due to a contract too big, he had been to one Pro Bowl in 2010, and he got a 1 year deal for $3.5 million with the Dolphins as a free agent. He had been coming off a good season in 2012 (rated 14th best tackle in NFL according to PFF).
Sebastian Vollmer, who at 28 had never been to the Pro Bowl and was originally a 2nd round pick, got a 4 year $27 million deal to re-sign with the Patriots. PFF ranked him as the 13th best tackle in 2012.
So if you look at the players above, I think Strief is comparable to all of them, except he's coming off a much better season than Winston did. I think you can agree he's coming off a comparable season to all the other guys listed, all right tackles (with the exception of Bushrod). I think he's about as good as Vollmer was a year ago, but 2 years older. He's better than Winston was, but 1 year older. He is better than Clabo was and a year younger. He's comparable to Cherilus, or maybe slightly less good, and 2 years older.
Considering Vollmer got a contract at $6.75 million a year at 28, Cherilus got $7 million a year at 28, and Clabo got $3.5 million for 1 year at 31 – I think Strief is somewhere in the middle. Being 30 I believe he'll probably get a 2-3 year deal averaging between $4 and $5 million per year, which pretty much splits the difference of what's listed above. I'm not factoring Eric Wintson in the equation because though he's 29 he just signed a 1 year deal to put himself in a position to ask for more the following season if he played well. Ballpark 2 years at $8 million to 3 years for $15 million sounds like a fair market value given Strief's age, current performance and what the market has recently done. Interesting to note that I mentioned Scott Fujita as a comparable situation, and while I realize the two positions are valued differently, Fujita got 3 years $14 million at the age of 30 in the 2010 offseason from the Browns. Solid tackles are worth more than solid linebackers, but it's widely viewed that the Browns grossly overpaid for Fujita.
One X factor in this equation is that Strief has missed 10 starts in 3 years as the starting right tackle for the Saints. He hasn't proven he's able to stay healthy through a 16 game season, even though he missed just one start last season, so at 30 that's a possible variable for any team considering the investment. I just don't see how anyone would risk offering more than 3 years to him based on this. I view the max contract he could possibly get, and this would be an insane pie in the sky, as 4 years $20 million. And if anyone does offer him that contract, he'll be gone for sure. But realistically I keep coming back to 3 years $15 million as a possible deal for him. If the Saints offer him that much, or very close, I don't see another team getting in a bidding war and sweetening the pot much more than that.
So, at that price, do you keep him given the Saints' cap situation?