By re-signing right tackle Zach Strief on Monday, the New Orleans Saints gave calm reassurance to quarterback Drew Brees, who was hit frequently in 2013, and also placed the team in draft mode because the coffers are close to bare.
Strief started all but one game for New Orleans last season and logged 1,062 snaps on offense. He allowed just three sacks, four quarterback hits and 26 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He was the seventh-ranked offensive tackle in the league last year in pass-blocking efficiency.
He was also the Saints’ best offensive lineman last season and an important target to reacquire for general manager Mickey Loomis.
According to Ian Rapoport on NFL.com, Strief’s contract comes with $8.4 million in guaranteed money, and the total value of the five-year deal is $20.5 million.
Even though Mike Triplett of ESPN.com reported that a league source told him Strief’s new contract was “salary-cap friendly in Year 1,” the Saints are hurting for money to spend. Over The Cap has the Saints with a measly $1.8 million of cap space remaining, and that figure was before the Strief deal is calculated.
It would appear that not only are the Saints done spending money in free agency, but they may have to restructure a deal or two just to pay all the rookies they draft in May.
What that means for the offensive line from 2013 is four starters have been slated to return. The only starter from last year that isn’t under contract to play for the Saints in 2014 is center Brian de la Puente, who is still an unrestricted free agent on the market.
De la Puente, if he chooses to sign elsewhere, will be a big loss. According to Pro Football Focus, he was the sixth-ranked center in the NFL last season and allowed just 15 total quarterback pressures on 699 passing plays.
The market for centers akin to the skill level of de la Puente may have been set by Evan Dietrich-Smith, who signed a four-year, $14.24 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on March 14. A deal like that, unless it was massively back-loaded, would be out of the realm of the Saints’ financial bag of tricks.
There are still 10 centers available via free agency, and de la Puente is the best. Of those 10, only six started more than five games at center last season.
|Remaining Centers on Free-Agent Market|
|Brian de la Puente||New Orleans Saints|
|Ryan Wendell||New England Patriots|
|Will Montgomery||Washington Redskins|
|Jonathan Goodwin||San Francisco 49ers|
|Fernando Velasco||Pittsburgh Steelers|
|David Baas||New York Giants|
|Kyle Cook||Cincinnati Bengals|
|Ryan Cook||Dallas Cowboys|
|Mike McGlynn||Indianapolis Colts|
|Samson Satele||Indianapolis Colts|
|NBC Sports - Rotoworld|
With little money and few options, the Saints might need to address the need for a starting center in the draft.
Unfortunately for New Orleans, this isn’t a particularly good draft for centers. There may only be a handful of two to three centers in the draft who are ready to start in the NFL, and that number may be contingent on the draftee being selected by a “proper-fit” team.
None of the college centers are slated to come off the draft board until the middle rounds, which is good for the Saints. If de la Puente doesn’t return to New Orleans, there will be a need at center, but there are still more pressing needs in the draft.
New Orleans still needs help at cornerback and needs to add depth at offensive tackle. An outside linebacker could be in the cards for the draft as well for the Saints. It also isn’t out of the question that the Saints will take the best pass-rusher or wide receiver available in the first round at pick No. 27.
It’s great for the Saints to have Strief back; he was a much-needed element for this offensive line. But now, as the second wave of free agents get signed around the league, the Saints are probably going to focus more on the upcoming draft instead of free agency.
With no money left to spend, it’s all about the draft for the Saints.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.