METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Once a fourth-round draft choice out of Division II Bloomsburg, Jahri Evans is now the highest-paid interior lineman in the NFL.
The Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints and Evans, who was both an All-Pro and Pro Bowler last season, agreed Wednesday on a seven-year contract worth nearly $57 million.
A person familiar with the contract told The Associated Press the deal was for $56.7 million, with $19 million guaranteed. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the financial terms were not disclosed by the club.
Evans' Philadelphia-based agent, Jerrold Colton, confirmed the deal was the richest contract ever given to an NFL guard.
Evans was a restricted free agent, meaning the Saints owned his rights after a deadline passed for him to sign offer sheets from other teams. However, Evans stayed away from New Orleans' first volunteer offseason workouts while general manager Mickey Loomis and Colton worked on a long-term deal.
Loomis announced the length of the deal on Wednesday and head coach Sean Payton said the 6-foot-4, 318-pound guard earned it.
"It's important to recognize, with what we do offensively, and the quarterback stepping up in the pocket, to have that size and talent inside the pocket I think is huge for Drew Brees and I think Drew would say the same thing," Payton said. "He's played since his rookie season at an extremely high level and what we've been able to accomplish as a team, offensively, his impact inside of the pocket, what he does, reflects a deal like that."
The Saints allowed 20 sacks last season, fourth fewest in the NFL.
New Orleans also led the league in offense for the third time in four seasons. Evans, 26, was part of Payton's first draft class in 2006 and has started all 64 regular season games since, as well as all five of the Saints' postseason games during that period.
Payton stressed that Evans played a leading role in a running game that produced 2,106 yards with Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush sharing the bulk of the carries.
Run-blocking was Evans' forte at Bloomsburg, which went undefeated in 2005, when Evans was the left tackle and helped starting running back Jamar Brittingham rush for 2,260 yards and 32 touchdowns. While scouts were impressed by Evans' ability to flatten defensive ends and keep tucking downfield to make another block, it was difficult to know how well he'd do against tougher competition.
Evans, a Philadelphia native, had received interest from several Division I schools after his junior year of high school, but a pick-up basketball injury forced him to miss his entire senior season and he wound up with only a partial scholarship to Bloomsburg.
When Evans entered the NFL draft, the Saints thought he was worth a fourth-round pick and he needed only a few weeks of training camp to prove that his success in Division II would indeed translate to the pros. He started right away and by his fourth season, he was an All-Pro, Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion.
"What he's able to do in the running game, the passing game, it's much deserved on his part and I think it's exciting for us as a club," Payton said of Evans' new deal. "When you have a young, talented player the way Jahri's been, it's a credit to his work ethic, how he's produced and how consistent he's been. He's been a big part of our success as a team."