“Mutual interest” exists to keep Zach Strief with Saints, agent and NFL source confrim

New Orleans Saints tackle Zach Strief (64) blocks during the second half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Tampa, Fla., Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

New Orleans Saints tackle Zach Strief (64) blocks during the second half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Tampa, Fla., Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

INDIANAPOLIS — The Saints‘ salary-cap situation isn’t ideal, but that won’t stop them from trying to prevent one of their best offensive linemen from departing in free agency.

 According to Strief’s agent as well as a separate NFL source, there’s a definite “mutual interest” to work out a deal that would keep right tackle Zach Strief in New Orleans for 2014 and beyond.

Strief — an eight-year veteran and starter for the Saints since 2011 — is due to become an unrestricted free agent on March 11. His agent, Ralph Cindrich, said Monday he spoke with the Black and Gold during the NFL Scouting Combine, which was in Indianapolis this week.

Cindrich remarked, “There is a (willingness) to get something done on both sides, and we had a good meeting and discussions.”

However, actually reaching a deal will take a lot of work. The Saints were recently estimated to be carrying a cap figure of about $125 million. As reported by ESPN, projections for the 2014 salary cap lately set it at about $130 million, if not $132 million.

New Orleans’ top priority this offseason is finding the dollars to re-sign All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham to a new long-term contract or, if that doesn’t materialize, to apply the franchise tag on him.

Many expect Graham — who spent most of his time in 2013 lining up out wide for the Saints and is at the end of the deal he accepted from the team as a rookie — to file a grievance to be classified as a receiver and not as a tight end for the purposes of the franchise tag. A franchise tag is likely to be worth about $5 million more for a wide receiver than for a tight end.

Nonetheless, it makes sense for the Saints to not give up on the prospect of hanging onto Graham as well as a proven offensive veteran such as Strief.

Strief, one of the team’s offensive captains, is one of the Saints’ top locker-room leaders. A seventh-round draft pick for New Orleans in 2006, he’s started 42 games (including the playoffs) since coach Sean Payton inserted him into the line-up three seasons ago. The analytics website Pro Football Focus gave him and quarterback Drew Brees the highest overall rating (26.5) for Saints players on offense in 2013.

After allowing just three sacks and four quarterback hits in 1,062 snaps last regular season, Pro Football Focus also gave Strief the seventh-highest rating for a tackle in the NFL.

Strief earned a base salary of $2.23 million in 2013. At the end of the campaign, he expressed his desire to rejoin New Orleans for what he called his “last opportunity sign a contract in this league.”

“Obviously this organization has been a big part of my life,” Strief said in January. “I feel like I’ve been a part of the success here and I don’t want to leave that.

“You hope that everybody at some point comes to an agreement to where you can stay. That’s how I feel. I think that’s how they feel.”

The Saints weren’t interested in retaining all of their battle-tested veterans. They recently released defenders Jabari Greer, Will Smith and Roman Harper, and they said they’d let linebacker Jonathan Vilma leave in free agency. All of them helped the Saints win Super Bowl XLIV.

The Saints also won’t tender an offer to restricted free agent Tom Johnson, a defensive lineman, another league source confirmed to The Advocate. USA Today’s Tom Pelissero first reported the news about Johnson.

Meanwhile, on a related matter, it was midway through the combine and Will Herring — the backup linebacker and special-teams captain who is scheduled to hit free agency — had not heard from the Saints about re-signing, another source confirmed.