It hasn’t been an offseason to remember for the Saints, but all is not lost in the Big Easy. Aside from having a roster stacked with some obvious talent and big-name stars, they also have some players who have been quietly impressive; flying under the radar yet integral to their success. The team has patched some of the weaker spots on the roster during free agency, and assuming they can get Drew Brees signed, things figure to be well once again for the Saints on the field at least.
Arguably, the least-heralded member of that high-octane, dominant offense is right tackle Zach Strief, but that should change because Strief is the New Orleans Saints’ Secret Superstar.
Low Profile Beginnings
Despite being such a large man, Zach Strief has been able to remain incognito for his entire football playing career. He was ranked as the 73rd best offensive lineman in the country in the Rivals 100 as a recruit, and earned a scholarship to Northwestern. Despite starting 40 games for the Wildcats and becoming the first lineman from the college to earn All-America honors in 22 years, Strief lasted all the way to the seventh round of the 2006 NFL Draft, with 209 players being selected ahead of him.
From that point on he was little more than a backup for the Saints for five seasons, though he also served as the New Orleans sixth offensive lineman/heavy tight end, and would see significant snaps in some games in this role. The occasional start he saw in relief of injured starters at tackle resulted in some mixed performances. They ranged from the very good to some clear struggles, but until 2011 he never had a chance to start more than one game at a time.
Like so many other players buried on depth charts, we never got to see what he could do in an extended run as a starter. Nonetheless, he was an important enough player for the Saints to keep him on the roster. After an injury-plagued 2010 season, the Saints opted to part ways with their long-time right tackle Jon Stinchcomb before 2011 began, and penciled in Strief as his replacement.
The 2011 Season
Strief’s season began with arguably the toughest test he would face all season as the Saints kicked off against Clay Matthews and the Green Bay Packers. Predictably enough, Strief had his poorest performance of the year, which would be one of only two efforts graded in the red all season. He was beaten for a hit and four pressures that day, and had an additional hit that was nullified by a penalty. All but two of these pressures came from Matthews, who also got the better of the big man in the run game.
Things didn’t get much better in Week 2 when Strief coughed up a sack and four pressures to the Chicago Bears, though he was notably better blocking for the run. The following week, Strief went down with a knee injury after just 29 snaps against the Texans which threatened to end his season and derail his opportunity. He was sidelined until Week 9, with second-year man Charles Brown stepping in and taking his snaps. When he returned against the Buccaneers, Strief was rejuvenated and put together a string of impressive performances, going eight games without giving up either a sack or hit before surrendering both in the playoffs against the Lions.
During that stretch, Strief played the Falcons (twice), Giants, Lions, Vikings and Panthers, all of whom are able to deploy some fearsome pass rushers. None of them were able to get home against the big right tackle. This is the stretch of play that secured his spot as the starting right tackle going forward and was really an impressive run overall. His cumulative grade in that span of eight regular season games was +15.5, and he played every snap save for seven near the end of the Minnesota game.
At 6-foot-8 and 349 pounds, Strief has the size to match up with anybody at the NFL level, but he also developed as a pass-protector, showing a good ability to deal with smaller, quicker players that often cause havoc for big linemen. After getting a rude awakening from Clay Matthews in his first game of the season, Strief put on a display against several similar players, and never struggled to that degree again.
2012 and Beyond
Strief is a great example of a player that hung around on an NFL roster just waiting for an opportunity to be more than simply a backup or practice squad filler. He paid his dues as an injury replacement and heavy-package tight end for years in the Saints’ offense, but 2011 was his shot to start and show what he could do. He embraced his chance, and despite an injury scare that threatened to torpedo his prospects before he had a chance to take it, he succeeded admirably.
Zach Strief earned himself the starting job with his performances in the past, and earned the right to keep it with his performances in 2011. If he can continue that level of play through sixteen games in 2012, we will be talking about Zach Strief as a potential Pro Bowl candidate by the end of the season. That’s not bad for a seventh-rounder out of Northwestern, and it’s why he is your Secret Superstar.