NFC South: New Orleans Saints

The New Orleans Saints have overhauled their secondary more than any other position group over the past two years, adding free agents Jairus Byrd, Keenan Lewis and Champ Bailey and first-round draft pick Kenny Vaccaro.

But don't think for a second that the Saints will ignore those positions in the draft -- especially if they get a crack at a top prospect such as Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert or Louisville safety Calvin Pryor.

Both of those top draft prospects are visiting New Orleans this week. Pryor was in town Monday, according to multiple reports. And Gilbert flew to New Orleans on Monday night, according to his own Twitter feed.

(UPDATE: A league source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan that four other cornerback prospects were also visiting New Orleans on Tuesday, along with Gilbert: Ohio State’s Bradley Roby, Lindenwood’s Pierre Desir, Oklahoma’s Aaron Colvin and Baylor’s Demetri Goodson.)

Cornerback seems like a bigger need for the Saints right now. A rookie such as Gilbert could battle Bailey and others for a starting job immediately. The Saints are more loaded at safety with Byrd and Vaccaro locked up long-term and Rafael Bush recently re-signing a two-year deal.

But the Saints have always proven in the past that they firmly believe in the best-available-player principle in the draft (aside from a handful of positions they really don't need). They demonstrated that again last year, when safety didn't appear to be one of their most glaring needs before they took Vaccaro.

And if anyone can figure out how to plug in a great athlete somewhere, it's creative defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

The bigger problem with both Gilbert and Pryor is that virtually zero analysts believe there's a chance they could fall to the Saints at No. 27. New Orleans would probably have to trade up to snag one of them.

Gilbert (6-foot, 202 pounds) is especially enticing. He's a sensational athlete who posted the fastest 40-yard dash time of any cornerback at the NFL scouting combine (4.37 seconds) and also served as a standout kickoff returner in college. He returned a total of six kickoffs for touchdowns in college.

Gilbert intercepted seven passes last year for Oklahoma State and returned two of those for touchdowns, as well. However, opinions are a bit mixed on just how high he might go. Some have projected him as a possible top-10 pick, though ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay is admittedly lower on him than most, ranking him 24th overall.

McShay cites Gilbert's inconsistent production and focus. He had a breakout year as a sophomore in 2011 with five interceptions, then had zero as a junior before his terrific senior season.

Perhaps his inconsistency makes Gilbert a risky investment as a top-10 pick. But he sure seems like he'd be a home run for the Saints if he slips into their reach.

Pryor, meanwhile, also seems to be a home run prospect. He's certainly a power hitter.

The 5-11, 207-pounder is known as a big hitter and standout run supporter as an in-the-box safety. He's also athletic enough to hold his own in coverage.

Pryor had seven interceptions and nine forced fumbles in his three-year college career, and he ran the 40 in 4.58 seconds. He is battling Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to become the first safety drafted.

Rice still in play: The Saints are still among the teams in play for free-agent receiver Sidney Rice, according to a league source. The Saints showed interest in Rice earlier this offseason. And he is now cleared to resume football activities after recovering from a torn ACL, according to Pro Football Talk. PFT, which said Rice might sign somewhere soon, also listed the Seattle Seahawks, New York Giants and Carolina Panthers among teams interested in Rice.

Rice, 27, was a dynamic receiver early in his career with the Minnesota Vikings, with a Pro Bowl season in 2009 (1,312 yards, eight touchdowns). But he has battled a series of injuries during the past four years with both the Seahawks (2011-2013) and Vikings (2007-2010).

The 6-foot-4, 202-pounder suffered the torn ACL midway through last season and finished with just 15 catches for 231 yards and three touchdowns in eight games played. In 2012, Rice had 50 catches for 748 yards and seven touchdowns in a full season with the Seahawks.

Herron's draft diary: Another player who made a pre-draft visit to New Orleans recently was Wyoming receiver Robert Herron, a projected mid-round pick. Herron shared a few details from the trip, plus his thoughts on how excited he'd be to join the Saints in a draft diary he's writing for USA Today.
The New Orleans Saints have to decide by May 3 whether they want to extend the contracts of their 2011 first-round draft picks -- defensive end Cameron Jordan and running back Mark Ingram -- through the 2015 season.

Jordan’s extension is expected to cost $6.969 million for 2015 and Ingram’s $5.211 million, according to ESPN NFL Insider John Clayton, who wrote about the looming fifth-year extensions around the league.

This is the first year that these fifth-year extensions will kick in after they were added to the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement in 2011. And as Clayton pointed out, that 2011 draft class happened to be one of the best in years.

Therefore, several teams are expected to retain their players -- which will put a dent in the talent available in next year’s free agency class around the league.

Extending Jordan is a no-brainer for the Saints. He was a first-time Pro Bowler last year in a breakout season with 12.5 sacks. He is arguably the Saints’ top defensive player as he heads into his fourth NFL season. And he doesn’t turn 25 until July.

Ingram is less likely to be extended at that price – even though the Saints remain high on his future and could consider re-signing him to a more affordable extension.

Ingram, 24, finished strong last season with an impressive performance in the playoffs. And his role in the Saints’ backfield could increase slightly this year now that the Saints have traded away veteran Darren Sproles. However, Ingram will still be in a timeshare with fellow running backs Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson.

Too early to draft Brees’ successor: Also in Clayton’s mailbag, he said it’s still too early for the Saints to draft a successor for quarterback Drew Brees. I completely agree -- as I’ve written several times this offseason. I expect Brees to keep playing at a high level for at least three or four more years.
From the outside looking in, the New Orleans Saints’ offseason has probably seemed a bit hectic.

The Saints have been full of surprises, from the big-name acquisitions of Jairus Byrd and Champ Bailey to the big-name departures of Darren Sproles and others.

[+] EnlargeMickey Loomis
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsMickey Loomis has made several key additions to the Saints' roster despite salary-cap constraints.
Based on reactions from fans and national analysts alike, the biggest head-scratcher of all has been the fact that the Saints keep adding ammo to the roster despite a tight squeeze against the salary cap.

But none of these moves have been made on the fly.

General manager Mickey Loomis insisted last week that just about every move the Saints made was part of a calculated plan.

“It’s not a process where all of a sudden there’s somebody [available] and you decide, ‘Hey, let’s go do this,’” Loomis said while speaking with reporters at LSU’s pro day.

“We have a short-term plan and a long-term plan,” Loomis continued. “And we come into each offseason with 19 or 20 or 25 different things that we want to get accomplished. And you just kind of go down the checklist. And obviously things come up that are unexpected, and you have to react to those. But for the most part, it’s a plan and an execution of the plan.

“So I would say it was kind of business as usual.”

Asked how many of those items the Saints have hit, Loomis said, “We’ve hit a lot of them. We always do. We don’t hit every item, but we hit almost all of them.”

(Click here for a recap of all the Saints' moves as of the beginning of last week.)

The Saints are actually in great shape with the salary cap after agreeing to a pay cut with defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley last week. They’re now $3.6 million under the cap, and they probably don’t have too many more expensive purchases left in their shopping cart.

New Orleans still has some noteworthy tasks left to complete. The biggest is signing tight end Jimmy Graham to a long-term contract extension, but Loomis insisted that there is no immediate pressure to get that done. Graham's franchise tag figure is already counting $7.035 million against the Saints' salary cap, so they don't need to clear out any new cap space for him.

The Saints also need to find a new starting center after letting Brian de la Puente get away in free agency, though they like second-year pro Tim Lelito’s potential as a candidate for that role.

And there are a few other positions where New Orleans needs to get younger, including receiver, but most of those needs can be filled through the draft.

As Loomis suggested, we won’t know until the fall whether the Saints’ plan worked out. But so far, at least, everything is going as planned.

“I feel like we’ve executed our plan well,” Loomis said. “Whether that’s a good plan or not remains to be seen. But we feel like it is.”
With the first month of free agency now in the books, ESPN Stats & Information put together some league-wide numbers. And it was interesting to note that the New Orleans Saints were among the most and least aggressive teams at the same time.

The Saints only added three players from other NFL teams in free agency (Jairus Byrd, Champ Bailey and Erik Lorig). That tied for the lowest number in the league, along with the Green Bay Packers and St. Louis Rams.

However, the New Orleans Saints were the biggest spenders on any one player. They gave Byrd more guaranteed money than any other free agent in the NFL this offseason.

Byrd’s $26.3 million in guaranteed money beat out Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Branden Albert ($26.0 million), Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib ($25.5 million) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Michael Johnson ($23.0 million).

With the Saints investing so heavily in one player, it’s the equivalent of trading up for a top pick in the draft. Only this time they “traded up” for the top pick in free agency.

The division-rival Buccaneers, meanwhile, led the NFL in both new free agents signed (15) and total guaranteed money spent since March 11 ($74.3 million).
The New Orleans Saints are now $3.6 million under the salary cap, according to the NFL Players Association, after their latest flurry of moves. Their new two-year deal for safety Rafael Bush was officially processed on Thursday.

Bush’s deal is worth between $3.8 million and $4.55 million, depending on incentives.

He’ll make $1.85 million this year, which is also his 2014 salary-cap cost. Bush did not receive a signing bonus, but $850,000 of his salary is guaranteed.

He is due $1.95 million in 2015, which is also his 2015 cap cost. He can earn an escalator of up to $750,000 next year based on interceptions and a Pro Bowl appearance this season.

Bush was already on the books for a $1.4 million cap hit this year since the Saints had previously made him a one-year qualifying offer as a restricted free agent. So the new deal doesn’t affect the cap much.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints' trip to LSU’s pro day didn’t end with the on-field workouts Wednesday. LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said he was planning to have dinner with Saints officials on Wednesday night. And Beckham’s father told The Advocate that fellow LSU receiver Jarvis Landry was also scheduled to dine with the Saints.

It’s possible that Saints officials spent extra time with other LSU prospects, as well. As usual, the Saints’ entire coaching staff and front office was out in full force at the Tigers’ pro day, just an hour up the road in Baton Rouge.

But Beckham and Landry must be particularly intriguing prospects for the Saints. A case could be made that the receiver position should rank No. 1 on New Orleans’ wish list now that Marques Colston is the only veteran left on the current roster.

The Saints could use a dynamic athlete to help stretch the field immediately. And they’ll eventually need a replacement for Colston, too.

Beckham would be the most tantalizing option – a speedy athlete who could also serve as a dynamic punt returner. Plus, he was raised in New Orleans and said it’s a “surreal feeling” to even think about getting to play in his hometown.

However, most analysts project that he won’t be around when the Saints pick at No. 27. And Beckham’s impressive performance in pass-catching drills Wednesday only strengthened his case.

Landry also strengthened his draft stock on Wednesday by running the 40-yard dash in 4.58 seconds (according to LSU). That was a marked and much-needed improvement over his surprisingly slow time of 4.77 seconds at the NFL scouting combine in February.

Landry’s showing could help strengthen his case to be a second-round draft choice.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has a new projection Insider for the New Orleans Saints with the 27th pick in his latest mock draft.

McShay had previously gone with Virginia offensive tackle Morgan Moses for the Saints in his past two mocks. But after the Saints re-signed veteran right tackle Zach Strief, among other developments, McShay decided to address two of the Saints’ other top needs in his two-round projection.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

BATON ROUGE, La. -- New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis shot down the notion Wednesday that the Saints and tight end Jimmy Graham will aim to strike a new deal by the middle of this month.

A report by Pro Football Talk last month cited a source as saying the two sides would try to reach a long-term contract agreement before the April 22 deadline for Graham to file a grievance over his franchise-tag designation. Graham was officially designated as a tight end, though it’s expected that Graham and agent Jimmy Sexton will file the grievance to argue that he should be considered a wide receiver based on where he lined up most often last season.

“Look, I’m always optimistic. But there’s no deadline here,” Loomis said when asked if that April 22 date was being used as a target.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesJimmy Graham and the New Orleans Saints continue to work toward a long-term deal.
Loomis, who spoke to the media while attending LSU’s pro day, declined to give any specific updates on how talks are developing with Graham. But he seemed to indicate that the pace hasn’t picked up much since the Saints first placed the franchise tag on Graham more than a month ago.

When asked for the most rational way for fans to look at the situation, Loomis cracked, “Well, when does training camp begin?”

“I don’t have an answer for that,” Loomis continued. “That’s a two-way street. You know, you guys [in the media] have been through this lots of times. I think all of us would rather have things done sooner rather than later, but it doesn’t always happen that way. So we’ll keep going, well keep at it in the process. Obviously we want to have Jimmy Graham on our team when training camp begins, and I am sure he wants to be with us.

“So we’ll just keep plugging away at the process. He’s got a great agent. And all his people, they know what they’re doing, and so do we. Hopefully we’ll come to a conclusion at some point.”

Saints owner Tom Benson gave a similar response during the NFL meetings last month when asked about the timetable for a new Graham deal, suggesting that he wouldn’t be surprised to see talks drag out like they did with franchised quarterback Drew Brees until July two years ago.

However, the potential grievance could throw a wrinkle into things.

If Graham does file a grievance, then his case would eventually be heard by a third-party arbitrator, who would be agreed upon by the NFL Management Council and the NFL Players Association. If that arbitrator agrees that Graham should be considered a wide receiver, his franchise-tag salary would soar from $7.05 million to $12.3 million.

That decision would give one side tremendous leverage in its long-term contract negotiations. So it remains possible that both the Saints and Graham’s camp would ultimately prefer to work out a deal on their own terms before it reaches the point of an arbitrator’s decision.

One way or another, Graham will almost certainly become the highest-paid tight end in NFL history, surpassing Rob Gronkowski’s $9 million average with the New England Patriots. The biggest question is whether Graham’s deal will be closer to $10 million per year or $12 million.
The New Orleans Saints have more wiggle room than expected under the salary cap.

Defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley agreed to a pay cut of $2.85 million. And newly-signed cornerback Champ Bailey’s first-year cap cost is only $1.5 million in an incentive-laden two-year contract.

Those two deals were officially processed on Wednesday, leaving the Saints with nearly $4 million in cap space. Their new deal for safety Rafael Bush hasn’t been processed yet, though that shouldn't affect New Orleans’ cap figure by more than $1 million or so.

Bunkley’s pay cut makes a lot of sense for two reasons.

He was originally slated to make $4.5 million in salary and bonuses this year – a lofty price tag considering he has been a part-time player for the Saints the past two years. Last year he finished with only 13 tackles, in part because of a calf injury that sidelined him for four games.

However, it also made sense that the Saints didn’t just cut Bunkley outright, since they still believe the 30-year-old can be an asset as a powerful run-stuffer. And he finished last season strong, playing some of his best football in his two-year stint in New Orleans.

Bunkley will make a total of $1.65 million this year, including a $300,000 roster bonus due Thursday. The final two years of his five-year contract were not affected, though they will likely have to be addressed again in the future.

Saints coach Sean Payton said situations like Bunkley’s play out every year in the NFL.

“You go through the numbers, you try to look closely at your roster. There’s some things that go into that,” Payton said. “He’s someone that I think has really kept in good shape. He had the injury earlier in the year. We saw really good signs from him in training camp. He knows the position. We’re excited he re-signed.”

Bailey, meanwhile, won’t cost the Saints much unless he performs for them – which is obviously a win-win proposition for the team.

Bailey’s two-year deal is worth between $3.75 million and $6.75 million, based on various bonuses and incentives. But only the $500,000 signing bonus is guaranteed.

Bailey is due a base salary of $1 million this year, plus another $250,000 roster bonus if he is active for at least six games. In 2015, he is due $2 million in salary and roster bonuses.

There is a total of $3 million more in incentives and escalator clauses based on playing time, interceptions and Pro Bowls. The exact thresholds are not known.
The New Orleans Saints are packing in a lot of draft research this week at one of their top positions of need -- wide receiver.

On Tuesday, USC’s Marqise Lee was at the Saints’ practice facility for a pre-draft visit. On Wednesday, the Saints will travel an hour up the road to Baton Rouge for LSU’s pro day, where they’ll get a closer look at Tigers receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, among others.

The Saints always bring their full contingent of coaches and scouts to LSU’s pro day because of the proximity and their close relationship with the school. But they might be even more interested this year than most because of the receiver duo.

[+] EnlargeLSU
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesLSU's Jarvis Landry ran the 40-yard dash in 4.77 seconds at the NFL combine in February. He'll try to improve on that time at LSU's pro day.
Buzz around Beckham: Beckham would seem to be an ideal fit for the Saints, since he could add a much-needed explosive element to both their offense and their punt return game. The only problem is that Beckham probably won’t last to New Orleans’ first-round pick at No. 27.

Beckham (5-foot-11, 198 pounds) cemented his status as a first-round pick -- and possibly even a top-20 pick -- with an impressive performance in February at the NFL scouting combine. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds.

Chances are, Beckham will stand on most of his workout numbers there and simply use the afternoon at LSU’s campus as a meet-and-greet session.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said Beckham has a lot going for him. In addition to being an “explosive talent” who causes problems for defenses because of his ability to accelerate, Kiper Jr. said everything from Beckham’s “hands, his character, his attitude, his approach is outstanding.”

Beckham caught 59 passes for 1,152 yards and eight touchdowns last season, setting the LSU single-season record with 2,222 all-purpose yards.

Lee under the radar? While the buzz seems to be growing with Beckham, it has seemed to fade around Lee ever since his sensational sophomore season of 2012.

That year, Lee was a first-team All-American and the winner of the Biletnikoff award as the nation’s top receiver. He caught an astounding 118 passes for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns two years ago, while also serving as an explosive kickoff returner.

However, the 5-11, 192-pounder had a quiet junior season in 2013, in part because of a nagging left knee injury that sidelined him for three games. Lee caught just 57 passes for 791 yards and four touchdowns last season, and struggled at times with dropped passes.

Then Lee posted a decent but not-so-dynamic time of 4.52 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine, which seemed to move him a few spots down in everyone’s mock drafts.

The Saints would probably love it if Lee fell to them at No. 27 -- though that still seems like a long shot based on what Lee has proven he can do on the field. He has drawn comparisons to the New York Giants’ Victor Cruz.

“Lee is the kind of receiver you draft with slight questions on ceiling but a high degree of certainty regarding immediate impact,” Kiper Jr. wrote.

Another receiver expected to be drafted in the mid-to-late first round is Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks, another dynamic speedster who projects as more of a slot receiver because of his size (5-10, 189).

And Florida State’s bigger, more physical receiver Kelvin Benjamin (6-5, 240) is projected by many analysts as a first-round possibility.

If the Saints don’t land a receiver in Round 1, however, LSU’s Landry could be an attractive option at the end of Round 2.

Big day for Landry: Landry (6-0, 205) was the first receiver Kiper Jr. mentioned when asked about second-round possibilities on a recent conference call.

Landry hurt his stock when he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.77 seconds at the combine. But he showed a good combination of speed and physical toughness in college and was actually more productive than Beckham last season, with a team-high 77 catches for 1,193 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Landry will certainly use today’s showcase as a chance to run a faster 40-yard dash and try and raise his stock heading into next month’s draft. ESPN analyst and former general manager Bill Polian said during the combine that it would be important for Landry to do so.

“It’d be hard for me to believe that’s his real time, having seen him play,” Polian told The Advocate at the time. “That aside, it’s only important if he doesn’t come back and do a lot better at his pro day.”

Mettenberger on display: The biggest buzz from LSU’s pro day will likely be generated by quarterback Zach Mettenberger. The 6-5, 224-pounder will show off his big arm in front of scouts and coaches for the first time since his January surgery to repair a torn ACL.

Mettenberger isn’t completely recovered yet, but he hopes to impress teams with how well he’s progressing. And he could help boost his chances of becoming a second-round draft pick. Stay tuned for reports from his workout Wednesday.
Ryan ShazierDavid Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesThe Saints could use a dynamic linebacker like Ryan Shazier to bolster their corps.
If we're ranking the New Orleans Saints' top needs in the draft based on where they could use the most immediate help, then the top three are probably center, wide receiver and cornerback.

The need at center is obvious in the wake of Brian De La Puente's departure. Meanwhile, a first-round draft pick at receiver or cornerback could step in right away in a rotational role while being developed as a future starter.

That's why cornerbacks like Jason Verrett, Kyle Fuller and Bradley Roby and receivers like Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks and Marqise Lee make a lot of sense as possible Saints targets.

However, when it comes to New Orleans' long-term future, the linebacker position isn't far behind.

The Saints will eventually need to replace veterans such as David Hawthorne and Parys Haralson. And in the meantime, they could really use a dynamic athlete to rotate into the mix in that spot.

After the 2013 season, I chatted with ESPN scouting analyst Matt Williamson about how much the Saints could benefit from their own version of NFC South studs like Tampa Bay's Lavonte David and Carolina's Thomas Davis -- guys who can chase down speed backs in the open field, cover running backs and tight ends in the passing game and occasionally blitz.

That's why I find myself gravitating toward Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier as a top prospect for the Saints with their 27th pick in Round 1 of the draft.

The Saints primarily run a 3-4 defense under coordinator Rob Ryan, so Shazier isn't an ideal fit on the surface. He's not really a pass-rushing outside linebacker, and he's a bit small for a traditional 3-4 inside linebacker at 6-foot-1, 237 pounds.

But as we've learned about Ryan, he's about as versatile and multiple as any defensive coordinator in the league. Give him a playmaker, and he'll find room for him (see: Kenny Vaccaro).

Shazier is certainly a playmaker. He ranked among the top three players in the country last season with 144 tackles and 23.5 tackles-for-loss, in addition to seven sacks and four forced fumbles. He was reportedly timed at a blazing 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash at Ohio State's pro day.

"You can make an argument he's one of the best 10 football players in this draft just on being a pure, instinctive football player," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said.

Shazier's dimensions are almost identical to those of David and Davis -- and to former Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, for that matter. And the one knock on Shazier in his scouting report is the same one that always stuck to Vilma: that he has trouble shedding blockers at times.

But everything else on the scouting report is extremely tantalizing.

"I love Shazier," Kiper said when I asked him if Shazier could fit in the Saints' defensive scheme. "It's just where is the best scheme fit? [He is] a guy that I think is a 4-3 outside linebacker but can play inside in the right scheme in a 3-4. And he could possibly, as you say, be that run-around chase athletic guy who can do so much with that 4.39 speed and that incredible athleticism."

That includes dropping back in pass coverage, Kiper affirmed.

"Yeah, Shazier's a tremendous athlete who can do everything you want," he said. "The only thing he lacks is the kind of size you look for as a 3-4 inside linebacker. And he might not be an elite pass-rusher, but he can certainly close and chase and pursue and do all the things you want. Heck of a football player."

Alabama's C.J. Mosley is another tantalizing athlete at the inside linebacker position. But Kiper said he doesn't expect him to fall far enough for the Saints to have a shot at him.

Kiper also mentioned Auburn pass-rusher Dee Ford as the kind of athlete who could fit the Saints as an outside linebacker. Kiper has paired Ford with the Saints in each of his past two mock drafts. Although Ford (6-2, 252) played defensive end in college, he projects as a 3-4 outside linebacker. And he has some experience dropping back in coverage, though it's not his specialty.

Kiper also mentioned Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu as a pass-rushing outside linebacker -- though he is generally considered more of a second-round prospect. Attaochu has 22 sacks in the past two seasons and probably fits best as a 3-4 outside linebacker.
The New Orleans Saints’ first gamble didn’t pay off. They hoped to retain restricted-free-agent safety Rafael Bush at a discount rate of $1.4 million.

But then the division-rival Atlanta Falcons swooped in and tried to steal Bush away from them. And that was a risk the Saints weren’t willing to take.

The Saints matched Atlanta’s offer for Bush (reportedly worth up to $4.5 million over two years). Even though the Saints are tight on salary-cap space, they figured losing Bush to the Falcons was the kind of double whammy they couldn’t afford.

Bush, 26, is a player on the rise. And he was starting to establish himself as a bruising hitter in the open field by the end of last season.

Now New Orleans is suddenly loaded with depth in the secondary -- and the Falcons are still searching for a starting safety.

As for Bush, he admitted to The Advocate’s Ramon Antonio Vargas that he was attracted to the opportunity in Atlanta, but only because the Falcons were offering more money and a better opportunity for a starting job.

Now that the Saints stepped up and showed him how much they value him, he insisted he’s still fired up about staying in NOLA – even if it’s in a No. 3 safety role alongside starters Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro.

“This team is going to make some big noise. I’m excited,” said Bush, who told The Advocate that he’s glad the offer sheet affair is done so he can focus again on being the player Saints coaches want him to be.

Bush also said he was prepared for some backlash from the passionate Saints’ fan base since he flirted with the enemy. But Bush said he was making the best decision for himself and his family.

“It’s never personal,” Bush said. “Players are looking for the well-being of their families.”

Saints fans shouldn’t be too hard on Bush. He couldn’t pass up the chance to virtually double his annual salary. And he earned this salary through his impressive play on both defense and special teams over the past two years.

The Saints probably should have just gone ahead and tendered Bush at a higher level in the first place (a one-year, $2.2 million offer would have required a team to give up a second-round draft choice to steal him away).

But the Saints didn’t really lose money in the deal, since that’s now Bush’s average salary over two years.

As for how they can find the cap space to fit Bush and recently-signed cornerback Champ Bailey, they can make it work. It’s possible they won’t even have to release or restructure any deals to make them both fit (depending on how the contracts are structured).

But if they do have to make another move, they will. As we’ve chronicled many times this offseason, the Saints have been more willing than any team in the NFL to push their cap costs into future years. The Saints will eventually have to pay those bills, but they figure they can catch up whenever quarterback Drew Brees retires.
After another flurry of activity to end this past week, now seems like a good time to rehash all of the New Orleans Saints’ comings and goings in free agency this offseason.

The Saints have added four new players, with safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Champ Bailey as the headliners.

They re-signed seven of their own free agents, including starting right tackle Zach Strief and part-time starting linebacker Parys Haralson. They also placed the franchise tag on tight end Jimmy Graham.

And they’ve parted ways with at least 12 players -- a list that includes offensive starters running back Darren Sproles, receiver Lance Moore and now center Brian de la Puente, who agreed to a deal with the Chicago Bears on Sunday. That list will grow to 13 if the Saints don’t match the offer sheet that restricted free agent safety Rafael Bush signed last week with the Atlanta Falcons.

All told, it’s hard to say whether the Saints were “winners” or “losers” in free agency this year. But it’s clear that they had an aggressive plan to release some longtime veterans and invest in other areas. Everyone they’ve lost so far has been by choice.

New Orleans’ surging defense got even better, and the Byrd signing should have the biggest impact of any move the Saints made this offseason.

However, if the offense didn’t get worse, it’s at least now loaded with question marks.

The Saints will need a number of new players to step up in key roles. The loss of Sproles will probably hurt the most --though the Saints’ depth at running back obviously made them feel comfortable enough to trade him to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Here’s the full list of moves:

S Jairus Byrd (formerly with Buffalo Bills)
CB Champ Bailey (Denver Broncos)
FB Erik Lorig (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
S Marcus Ball (CFL’s Toronto Argonauts)

RT Zach Strief
LB Parys Haralson
LB Ramon Humber
OLB Keyunta Dawson
QB Luke McCown
WR Joe Morgan
K Shayne Graham

RB Darren Sproles (traded to Philadelphia Eagles)
S Malcolm Jenkins (signed with Philadelphia Eagles)
C Brian de la Puente (Chicago Bears)
WR Lance Moore (Pittsburgh Steelers)
S Roman Harper (Carolina Panthers)
FB Jed Collins (Detroit Lions)
OT Charles Brown (New York Giants)
DE Tom Johnson (Minnesota Vikings)

Still in limbo:
TE Jimmy Graham (unsigned franchise tag)
S Rafael Bush (Saints have until Tuesday to match offer sheet by Falcons)

Still unsigned:
DE Will Smith (released by Saints)
CB Jabari Greer (released by Saints)
LB Jonathan Vilma (Saints announced they won’t re-sign)
DE Kenyon Coleman (plans to retire)
WR Robert Meachem
LB Will Herring
S Jordan Pugh
The New Orleans Saints officially need a new starting center now that Brian de la Puente has agreed to a deal with the Chicago Bears.

de la Puente
Obviously the Saints were prepared for this possibility -- and they seemingly chose to go in another direction. Terms of de la Puente’s one-year deal have not been announced yet, but it doesn’t appear that it would have cost too much for New Orleans to retain the 28-year-old free agent.

The Saints could go in a number of directions to fill the void. They’re very high on the potential of second-year pro Tim Lelito. But the undrafted free agent out of Grand Valley State is still raw. And so far, Lelito’s only NFL experience has come at the guard position in two spot starts last year.

The Saints could also draft a center in the early to middle rounds to add another candidate into the mix.

Or, if New Orleans wants to bring in a veteran for more security or competition, free agent Jonathan Goodwin is an obvious candidate. Goodwin, 35, was the Saints’ starter from 2008-2010, including a Pro Bowl season in 2009 en route to the Super Bowl. He spent the past three years as the San Francisco 49ers’ starter, though San Francisco has apparently decided to move on with a younger replacement.

Goodwin is no longer in his prime, but he has obviously proven to be a good fit in the Saints’ offense and locker room in the past, so he could be a great short-term solution.

Replacing de la Puente is a bit risky. He was a solid starter for most of the past three years. He was a huge part of their 2011 offensive explosion when he first came out of nowhere to beat out veteran Olin Kreutz for the job. And though he struggled early last season, he finished strong, helping the Saints show off a more prolific rushing attack in the playoffs.

Now the Saints need to find a new signal-caller in the middle of their line, while also continuing to develop second-year left tackle Terron Armstead.

However, the Saints should be able to absorb the loss of de la Puente since they have two Pro Bowl veteran guards in Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans. They also re-signed starting right tackle Zach Strief, keeping a good amount of stability on the line.

And it’s possible that Lelito or a draft pick could wind up developing into a long-term upgrade. Both coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis have spoken highly of Lelito this offseason.

“Tim Lelito would be a guy that’s gonna be in the mix, someone that will be competing for that opportunity,” Payton said two weeks ago. “We’ll see who he’s gonna be competing against. But he’s someone that we feel has a chance to be that player.”
The offer sheet that restricted free-agent safety Rafael Bush signed with the Atlanta Falcons is worth $4.5 million over two years, a league source told The Advocate. The source also said Bush is hoping the New Orleans Saints won’t match the deal because Atlanta is offering a chance at a starting job.

New Orleans has until Tuesday to match the Falcons’ offer. If the Saints don’t match the offer, they will not receive any draft pick compensation from Atlanta.

The Saints have certainly been acting like a team that’s prepared to let Bush go this week. They agreed to deals with veteran cornerback Champ Bailey and former Canadian Football League safety Marcus Ball to add depth to their secondary.

Letting Bush go would free up $1.4 million in salary-cap space -- which the Saints probably need to be able to fit Bailey’s new deal under the cap. Bailey’s deal is worth up to $7 million, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Bush, 26, was expected to resume his role as the Saints’ No. 3 safety, which was practically a full-time job the way the Saints liked to use three safeties last year. The hard-hitting safety played 67 percent of the Saints’ defensive snaps when he was healthy last year (he missed three games due to injury). He finished with a career-high 42 tackles and five pass defenses.

The Falcons, however, are offering an even greater opportunity. They have a vacancy in their starting lineup since they decided to release veteran Thomas DeCoud last month.

Bush would become the second-most experienced safety on the Falcons’ roster. And he is friends with the Falcons’ other starting safety, William Moore -- making the switch even more attractive.