Saints right tackle Zach Strief appreciates the enormous challenge facing teammate Charles Brown, a promising fourth-year tackle who has become the central figure in one of the key position battles of training camp.
Strief found himself in a similar situation in 2010: The team abruptly released Pro Bowl tackle Jon Stinchcomb midway through training camp, leaving a formidable hole on the right side of the line and no sure-fire replacement.
A seventh-round pick out of Northwestern in 2006, Strief had made a name for himself as a versatile backup tackle, third tight end in jumbo packages and special teams contributor. But he hardly was viewed as ready to step in and start — nor was Brown, then a highly touted rookie from USC.
Now, the 29-year-old Strief is preparing to start for his third consecutive season, and Brown finds himself under constant scrutiny as he goes about trying to replace two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who left for the Chicago Bears in free agency.
“Absolutely, I know what Charles is going through,’’ Strief said. “When you’re the guy under the magnifying glass, you know every day you got to go out and every day has got to be great. You feel like every plus and every minus is magnified and every play is that much more important.
“(Right guard Jahri Evans) is here to get ready for the season. Same deal for (left guard) Ben Grubbs. ... But I’m fighting for a job. I don’t feel comfortable about my position, and I know that Charles doesn’t either.’’
Brown and Strief are expected to open with the first offensive unit in Saturday’s annual Black and Gold scrimmage from 8:50-11 a.m. at the team’s training facility in Metairie. Third-round draft pick Terron Armstead and veteran Jason Smith are in the mix at left tackle, and Marcel Jones and Bryce Harris are working behind Strief.
“Zach Strief is a perfect example of a guy who is very productive because he understands what he has to do, and he understands who he is and how he can work with those tools and be productive,’’ offensive line coach Bret Ingalls said. “Jahri and Zach work in harmony. They understand what each other is doing at all times and, when they don’t, they’re talking. That’s how you build cohesiveness. So, wherever we land at left tackle, it’s important that we have five guys working together as one.’’
That approach has been tested recently: Evans is the only holdover from the five starting linemen on the Super Bowl XLIV championship team in 2009. In addition to Stinchcomb (who’s now retired), Bushrod, left guard Carl Nicks (Tampa Bay) and center Jonathan Goodwin (San Francisco) all left in free agency.
Though the linemen have changed, the offense under quarterback Drew Brees remains prolific thanks to capable replacements — such as Brian de la Puente for Goodwin, Grubbs for Nicks and Strief for Stinchcomb. Now the onus falls on Brown to fill a void, just as Strief did two years ago.
Likewise, Stinchcomb was the next guy up at right tackle in 2006 after muddling through his first three injury-riddled seasons in the NFL.
“You just have to focus on your play, your game,’’ said Stinchcomb, who succeeded Victor Riley in the starting lineup. “I speak from experience. In 2006, that was my first opportunity to start following surgery to repair my patella tendon in my third year. You can’t be distracted by all the other stuff around you. I did it, Zach did it and now Charles has to do it.’’
Strief credited Stinchcomb for his ability to make the transition.
“Honestly, I don’t know if I’m still in the NFL without Jon having been here,’’ he said. “He’s not just a teammate anymore; he’s a friend. There are probably five or six men in the world that aren’t my father that I’ve said ‘I love you’ to. Jon is that type of guy. He’s been a mentor-type person for me.’’
Strief said he makes a point of returning that favor, particularly for those younger and less experienced than him — players such as Charles Brown.
“Jon told me very early on when we played together that I had my foot in his back and he felt I was pushing him out the door,’’ Strief said. “We laughed about that all the time. Yet Jon was always there to give me a tip, to encourage me, to push me, to make me better.
“I really try hard to be that guy for the other players. I do my best to try to help Marcel, Bryce, Charles, Terron — really anyone, because somebody did it for me. That meant a lot to me. I try to do that because, at the end of the day, it’s all part of being a team. If that guy is pushing me, it’s just better for me in the long run. ... We try to be like Jon was to us.’’