White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. – If Zach Strief gives the impression that he's a player whose New Orleans Saints jersey will have to be ripped from his hands or sheared from his pads, well, that's probably closer to fiction than to fact.
Strief is in his 11th Saints training camp, the last three at The Greenbrier. And while he has given the Saints 10 seasons of uninterrupted service, a significant achievement for a former seventh-round draft pick in 2006, he's enough of a realist to understand that one day the music will stop, and all the seats will be taken before he can claim one.
New Orleans, in fact, drafted his eventual replacement at right tackle last year: 2015 first-round pick Andrus Peat.
But the desire to put the best five offensive linemen on the field has driven the Saints to plug in Peat at right guard, to replace former stalwart Jahri Evans, and to leave Strief in the position where he has started every game he has played since 2011. Sixty-nine of his 76 career starts have been made during that time, during which he has been one of the chief protectors of quarterback Drew Brees.
Brees, entering his 16th season and already having celebrated his 37th birthday, said he believes he can play at least five more seasons at his current, ultra-productive level.
Strief? Not so much.
"What'd he tell you?" Strief asked of Brees, "47 (years old before he considers retirement)?
"I've told everybody, my career is one year at a time. I'm in shape and I feel good right now, and I'm going to do my best to contribute to this team. And when the season ends, I'll re-evaluate then.
"At the end of the day, at some point – considerably earlier than Drew – they're going to come to me and say, 'OK, we've had enough.' And then I'll try to make it look like it was my decision, and walk away. And I'm content with that."
Until then, Strief apparently remains productive enough as a player to not only have a position, but to be a starter. And he also continues to be a respected leader and voice in the locker room.
"He's smart, he's got passion," Coach Sean Payton said. "He's one of those guys that is very good in regard to his technique. I think it's his passion, his perseverance – those things that sometimes are hard to define when a player is coming out in the draft.
"For him, going on year 11, he knows exactly who he is and how to play to his strengths and weaknesses. And that's been a big reason (he remains a Saint)."
Who Strief is, and one of his strengths, is recognition. And part of that recognition includes the realization that Peat is the future. But even while acknowledging that after Peat was drafted, Strief vowed to share as much wisdom as he could with his new teammate, the same as was done for him by his predecessor, Jon Stinchcomb.
"When I first came in here, he started helping me out," Peat said. "If I ever had a question, or even if I didn't ask, he was helping me out, pointing things out that I could improve.
"He's always been there for the young guys so I think that makes him a great teammate. Even though we play the same position, he's always there to help me out."
That help toward Peat's transition won't make it easier for Strief to leave. But it'll be one of the final, selfless acts that he has performed for the Saints.
At some point, the franchise will say, "OK, we've had enough." No doubt, after his service, it will allow him the pleasure of making it look like it was his decision.