Vargas: Saints, Zach Strief both richer with new contract

Countless times, Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis has told reporters that his office’s goal at this point in the offseason is to shore up as many potential weaknesses as possible in free agency.

That way, Loomis’ thinking goes, when the draft arrives in May, the Saints aren’t forced to pass on any good players who nonetheless might not fill an immediate need.

The Saints took a significant stride toward achieving that objective Monday morning by reaching terms on a deal to re-sign right tackle Zach Strief for five years.

A source for The Advocate said the deal is worth up to $20.5 million, with $8.4 million guaranteed and a $5.5 million signing bonus. Strief will earn a first-year base salary of $900,000. He will tie up a total of $2 million of the team’s salary-cap space for 2014, the source said.

When Strief became an unrestricted free agent on March 11, the Saints could hardly have found themselves with a more pressing need. On an offensive line that featured two guards (Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans) who were selected to January’s Pro Bowl, Strief had arguably been its best performer in 2013.

He had surrendered just three sacks and four quarterback hits. He had just two holding penalties — the fewest among the Saints who began the season as starting offensive linemen — and one false start. In his second season as an offensive captain for the Saints, he earned the seventh-highest rating among tackles in the NFL from Pro Football Focus.

And he did all of that as part of a unit tasked with preserving the longevity of Drew Brees, commander of one of the NFL’s most pass-heavy offenses, the only quarterback in league history to throw for 5,000+ yards in more than one season (he’s done it four times now).

A lot was made of the fact that Brees in 2013 was sacked 37 times, or 11 more than he ever had been while in New Orleans. While 22 other teams gave up more sacks than the Saints did, New Orleans won’t take much solace in that fact, and there’s no question they’ll feel better about working to improve Brees’ protection knowing their most efficient pass blocker is set to return.

If other items on the Saints’ to-do list were more important than hanging on to Strief, there weren’t many of them. No one on New Orleans’ roster could do the job better (the same couldn’t be said of other players the team has recently parted ways with); and unlike the right tackles on the open market, he’s intimately familiar with the Saints’ system.

The Saints had already shown they were firmly in command of their offseason plans well before they reached terms on what is a fair deal with Strief, who’s been in New Orleans since the team chose him in the seventh round of the 2006 draft.

They proved that with the successful pursuit of marquee free-agent safety Jairus Byrd; the two-year contract extension to Pierre Thomas that lowered the number of spending dollars tied up in the running back for the 2014 season; and the decision to trade running back Darren Sproles to Philadelphia for a fifth-round draft pick, which ensured New Orleans received compensation for a player they were seemingly prepared to release.

But early Monday they issued yet another reminder that they’re in control, and both Strief and the Saints are the richer for it.