NFL Nation: Rafael Bush

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan already proved how much he loves to feature safeties in his versatile defense last year. The Saints spent about 75 percent of their snaps in nickel defense -- almost always using three safeties on the field at once.

Now Ryan has even more ammo to work with after the Saints added three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd in free agency to pair with returning young players Kenny Vaccaro and Rafael Bush.

When asked how much input he had in the Saints signing Byrd to a six-year, $54 million contract, Ryan said, “Uh, that is absolutely zero. But I was happy. That one came from much higher up than me, but I was ecstatic when I heard the news.”

The Saints were most attracted by Byrd’s ball skills and his ability to force turnovers. His 22 interceptions rank second in the NFL over the past five seasons.

“I think he’s got unique ball skills. If that ball hits his hands, he is going to catch it,” Ryan said. “But also with that, he is very smart. He can put himself into plays.”

I asked Ryan if Byrd “freelances” from time to time to wind up with so many picks.

“I think that one thing with turnovers in the National Football League, these are the best quarterbacks in the world. You have to play your technique. You have to be disciplined,” Ryan said. “But there comes a time and point where every turnover is made where a guy has to just go make it. And he’s been great all through his career. He’s played corner in college. I mean, he just has unique ball skills. And so did his father (longtime former NFL standout Gill Byrd).”

Ryan has always gushed with praise for second-year Saints safety Vaccaro as well. Last season, Ryan said he believed the Seattle Seahawks' Earl Thomas was the best free safety in the NFL, but Vaccaro was the best "overall safety” because of his versatility.

And Ryan also raved Tuesday about the hard-hitting Bush, who has played a big role both on defense and special-teams coverage for the past two seasons.

“Oh, he’s very important. He’s an excellent football player,” Ryan said of Bush, who was re-signed by the Saints as a restricted free agent after they matched a two-year, $4.5 million contract Bush signed with the Atlanta Falcons.

“The Falcons did us a favor by giving him such a low offer,” Ryan said. “That’s great. We got him for two years. Thanks.”
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.

Bush
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.
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.

Bush
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.

 
The Atlanta Falcons are hoping to fill one of their biggest needs -- and to dent their longtime rivals, the New Orleans Saints, in the process.

Atlanta signed restricted free agent safety Rafael Bush to an offer sheet, meaning the Saints have until Tuesday to match the offer or lose Bush with no draft-pick compensation.

Bush
Terms of the Falcons' offer have not been disclosed. The Saints previously offered Bush a one-year deal at the lowest qualifying offer of $1.431 million. The Saints have given no indication yet whether or not they plan to match Atlanta's offer.

The reason the Saints would receive no draft-pick compensation is because Bush originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2010 -- with none other than the Falcons in 2010. Bush then spent a year with the Denver Broncos before finding a home as a part-time starter and special teams standout with the Saints over the past two years.

Bush had 42 tackles and five pass defenses last year as a part-time starter for the Saints, who often featured three safeties together in their nickel and dime packages. The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder has also been a standout in special teams coverage for New Orleans for the past two years.

Both teams could really use Bush, since they're both very thin at the safety position.

The Saints have two excellent starters in newly-signed free agent Jairus Byrd and second-year pro Kenny Vaccaro. They also recently signed Canadian Football League transplant Marcus Ball. But those are the only three safeties on the Saints' current roster.

The Saints recently brought in veteran cornerback Champ Bailey for a visit. It's possible that Bailey could be used as a pseudo-safety in nickel and dime packages if the Saints decide to add him.

Atlanta, meanwhile, has an even bigger need at safety after releasing longtime starting free safety Thomas DeCoud last month. They have a standout starter in strong safety William Moore. But the next two safeties on the Falcons' depth chart are unproven seventh-round picks from last year -- Zeke Motta and Kemal Ishmael.

Motta, who replaced DeCoud for a game last season, is coming off of surgery for a cervical fracture.

The Falcons released DeCoud in part because of his $4.8 million salary-cap cost and in part because they didn't feel he was a physical enough tackler and didn't make enough plays on the ball.

Bush, who was primarily used as a deep safety for the Saints, does bring some physicality to the position.

Moore and Bush are friends, and he previously said that he had talked with Bush about the possibility of joining the Falcons.

Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure contributed to this report.
If the New Orleans Saints don’t re-sign safety Malcolm Jenkins, they will almost certainly need to add depth in free agency. Maybe in the draft as well.

The Saints already released veteran safety Roman Harper last month. Now they have only one safety left on their current roster: second-year pro Kenny Vaccaro. The good news is that Vaccaro looks poised to be one of their top playmakers for years to come after an outstanding rookie season. The Saints also like the potential of part-time starter Rafael Bush, whom they hope to bring back as a restricted free agent and might promote to a greater role.

The Saints need more depth, though, especially if they plan to continue the three-safety rotation that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan favored so much last season.

I doubt they will be in the market for the biggest names in free agency (the Buffalo Bills' Jairus Byrd and the Cleveland BrownsT.J. Ward). Hard-hitting San Francisco 49ers safety Donte Whitner might also be too costly.

But there are still a handful of intriguing options in the next tier or two -- a tier that includes Jenkins, whom the Saints could still consider bringing back if the price is right.

The Saints have already brought in free-agent safety Louis Delmas for a visit after he was released last month by the Detroit Lions. But they don’t appear likely to sign Delmas, according to a league source.

Others in that same range include the Indianapolis Colts' Antoine Bethea, the Miami Dolphins' Chris Clemons and the Carolina Panthers' Mike Mitchell.

Bethea was the best of that bunch in his prime, earning two Pro Bowl invites. He turns 30 before the season starts, but he has remained productive. He hasn’t missed a game since 2007 and has six straight seasons with at least 95 tackles.

ESPN NFL Insiders Matt Williamson and Adam Caplan both suggested Clemons, 28, as a possible fit for the Saints. He is a physical safety who is also decent in coverage.

“I really like Chris Clemons from Miami,” Williamson said. “He’s more of a free safety type, fits that mold of what I think they’d be after. Still young.”

The next tier includes younger veterans with promise, such as the New York Giants’ Stevie Brown, the Chicago Bears’ Major Wright and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Nate Allen. Brown and Wright played great in 2012, but Brown missed last season with a knee injury and Wright struggled along with the rest of Chicago’s defense.

James Ihedigbo is a 30-year-old strong safety who had his first 100-tackle season with the Baltimore Ravens last year after spending most of his career as a special-teams asset.

Louis Delmas visits Saints

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Veteran safety Louis Delmas has visited with the New Orleans Saints.

Delmas
The Saints could be in the market for a safety because Malcolm Jenkins can become a free agent and Roman Harper previously was released. Backup Rafael Bush is scheduled to become a restricted free agent.

Delmas was a second-round pick by Detroit in 2009 and has spent his entire career with the Lions. Although free agency doesn’t start until mid-March, Delmas can be signed at any time because he was released by Detroit.
The New Orleans Saints have four restricted free agents this year -- fullback Jed Collins, receiver Joe Morgan, safety Rafael Bush and defensive lineman Tom Johnson.

Based on the NFL rules for restricted free agents, the Saints will need to make a qualifying offer to each player by March 11 to secure the right to match any other offers the players may sign elsewhere. And if the Saints' qualifying offer is high enough, then other teams will also be required to give up draft picks as compensation to sign the players away.

A league source has already indicated the Saints don't plan to re-sign Johnson. But they will have to make a decision on how much to offer the other three.

Since all four of the Saints’ restricted free agents went undrafted out of college, the Saints will essentially have four choices to make with each of them:
  • Offer a one-year deal worth a projected $2.2 million (which comes with a second-round draft pick compensation if they sign elsewhere).
  • Offer a one-year deal worth a projected $1.4 million (which comes with no draft pick compensation).
  • Actually sign the player to a new contract -- which could be for less money or for more (like what the Saints did last year when they signed RFA Junior Galette to a long-term extension).
  • Don’t make any offers, allowing the player to become an unrestricted free agent.

Here's a breakdown of the players:

FB Jed Collins: Age 27. Height/weight: 6-1, 255.

I definitely expect the Saints to keep Collins -- either by offering the second-round tender or by working out a long-term extension that works for both sides. Although the Saints only used Collins on about 40 percent of their offensive snaps last year, they value him in that role. He has played at a high level for New Orleans for the past three years -- as both a lead blocker and occasional pass catcher. He was especially good as a blocker during the second half of last season.

Collins has a total of 39 receptions for 174 yards and four touchdowns over the past three years. Last year, he also ran the ball a career-high 15 times for 45 yards and a touchdown. Before that, he had just four career carries (though two of them went for touchdowns).

Collins found a home in New Orleans after bouncing around with a whopping seven different teams from 2008-2010 as an undrafted free agent out of Washington State, mostly on practice squads.

S Rafael Bush: Age 26. Height/weight: 5-11, 200.

I expect the same thing with Bush -- either the second-round tender or a new long-term extension. The Saints valued him quite a bit last year as a backup safety and a special teams standout. And he could push for an even bigger role this year with Malcolm Jenkins' future uncertain.

Bush played about two-thirds of the Saints' defensive snaps when he was healthy last year, since they featured so many three-safety packages. Bush was primarily used as a deep safety. He had a career-high 42 tackles last season. He had an interception and a forced fumble in 2012.

The Saints picked up Bush off waivers during the first week of the 2012 season after he was released by the Denver Broncos.

WR Joe Morgan: Age 25. Height/weight: 6-1, 184.

I also think the Saints will try to keep Morgan -- but they may go with the lower tender or try to work out a more affordable contract. Morgan seemed poised for a big year last season as the Saints' No. 3/deep threat receiver. But he missed the entire season after tearing his ACL early in training camp.

The speedy Morgan showed signs of a breakout in a limited role in 2012 with 10 catches for 379 yards and three touchdowns. The Saints could certainly use that kind of dynamic playmaking ability to stretch the field if Morgan proves he can bounce back from his injury this summer. But the Saints may also consider drafting a fast receiver.

DL Tom Johnson: Age 29. Height/weight: 6-3, 288.

The Saints have apparently decided to move on from Johnson because of their young depth at the defensive line (including backups John Jenkins, Glenn Foster and Tyrunn Walker). But Johnson was a solid backup for them over the past three years as both a 4-3 tackle and a 3-4 end. He should definitely get an opportunity elsewhere.

Johnson, whom the Saints plucked from the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders, had 55 tackles, five sacks and a forced fumble in his three years with New Orleans.
The New Orleans Saints reportedly aren’t planning to make a tender offer to restricted free agent defensive lineman Tom Johnson, according to USA Today’s Tom Pelissero.

Johnson
That’s not a huge surprise, since the minimum one-year tender for restricted free agents is projected to be around $1.4 million this year. It’s unclear if the Saints will consider bringing back Johnson on a more affordable deal.

Johnson, 29, has been a solid backup at both tackle and end for the Saints over the past three years since they snagged him from the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders. The 6-3, 288-pounder has 55 tackles, five sacks and a forced fumble in his career.

The Saints, however, have some nice young depth at their interior line positions, led by Cameron Jordan, Akiem Hicks, John Jenkins, Glenn Foster and Tyrunn Walker, in addition to veteran tackle Brodrick Bunkley.

The Saints will likely make a stronger push to re-sign their other three restricted free agents -- fullback Jed Collins, safety Rafael Bush and receiver Joe Morgan.

They’ll likely use the second-round tender on Collins (meaning a team would have to give up a second-round pick to sign him away). That tender is projected to cost $2.1 million or more. They may need to use the same tender on Bush, since he could move into a starting role for the Saints this year.

Morgan is tougher to predict since he has shown great potential as a deep-threat receiver, but he also missed last season with a knee injury. They could offer the $1.4 million tender, which comes with no draft-pick compensation, or try to work out a deal for less.

RFA tenders must be made before the start of the new league year on March 11.
There was a lot to like about the New Orleans Saints' defense in their 23-15 playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks. They held Seattle to 277 yards, 103 passing yards and just 13 first downs. I was particularly impressed by defensive end Cameron Jordan and safety Roman Harper (more on them later).

However, I have to start this season's final film study with what went wrong on Marshawn Lynch's two long touchdown runs -- which ultimately sealed the Saints' fate for the 2013 season:

Beast Quake, the Sequel: Lynch's 31-yard touchdown that essentially clinched the game in the final minutes was awfully reminiscent of his legendary 67-yard “Beast Quake” touchdown run against the Saints three years ago. The only differences were that this time Lynch cut back around the left end instead of cutting inside to the right, and this time he only made one defensive back (Keenan Lewis) look silly in the open field.

[+] EnlargeMarshawn Lynch, Keenan Lewis
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints weren't able to contain Marshawn Lynch when they had to in the fourth quarter.
In the Saints' defense, they couldn't afford to give up any more ground to Seattle in that situation (down by 8, 2:48 remaining, no timeouts left and the Seahawks entering field goal range). So they probably sold out more than they should have to try to stuff Lynch for a loss or no gain. The Seahawks were in a jumbo package, and the Saints had 10 men in the box. Jordan actually got great penetration up the middle, forcing Lynch to cut outside to the left. But Lynch's cutback was nasty, and it gave him tons of open space since linebacker David Hawthorne, safety Malcolm Jenkins and Lewis had all cheated toward the inside.

Seattle's blocking was huge, too. Tight end Zach Miller stood up outside linebacker Junior Galette at the line of scrimmage. And receiver Jermaine Kearse took out Jenkins with a perfectly executed crack-back block. Lewis eventually caught up with Lynch around the 14-yard line, but he didn't have a great angle, and Lynch didn't budge as he easily batted away Lewis with a stiff-arm.

More Lynch: The Saints did a nice job against Lynch at times, but he burned them often enough as he racked up 140 yards on 28 carries. Lynch's first big highlight was a 15-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. This time, the Seahawks were in more of a passing formation, and the Saints were in their nickel defense. But the result was the same when Lynch used another nasty cutback to the right side to make several Saints defenders over-pursue (including Hawthorne, cornerback Corey White and safety Rafael Bush). Harper then missed a tackle from the side near the end of the run.

Lynch made just about every Saints defender look foolish at least once. He's known for his power, but his speed on those cutbacks was even more impressive in this game. Hawthorne, Jenkins, Galette and Akiem Hicks each whiffed on him once in the open field (Hicks and Galette on the same play in the fourth quarter).

Jump balls: The other play that stood out as an absolute killer for the Saints was receiver Doug Baldwin's 24-yard catch on third-and-3 on the play right before Lynch's last touchdown. The Saints' defense had been completely shutting down Seattle's offense throughout the entire second half. But on this play, Wilson essentially tossed one up for grabs, and Baldwin went up and got it over White. Baldwin then made a fantastic effort to hang on to the ball and stay in bounds as White tried to jar the ball loose.

White's coverage was decent, but he was a step behind after jamming Baldwin off the line of scrimmage. So Baldwin had the chance to turn and locate the ball, while White did not. Wilson completed an almost-identical jump-ball pass to receiver Percy Harvin against White for a 16-yard gain on third-and-8 in the first half, which led to a field goal.

[+] EnlargePercy Harvin
Harry How/Getty ImagesPercy Harvin was shaken up after a collision with Rafael Bush. Harvin would eventually leave the game with a concussion after another rough hit.
Big shots: Another big passing play for the Seahawks came on their opening drive, when Saints safety Bush was flagged for unnecessary roughness against Harvin while breaking up a third-down pass. It was the right call, since their helmets collided at full speed. But it was a tough break since Bush was leading with his shoulder and Harvin appeared to crouch down into the hit as he braced for impact. That's the risk that safeties like Bush take in today's NFL, though, when they launch above the strike zone.

Harvin later had to leave the game after another brutal hit when his head struck the ground after an incomplete pass in the end zone. This time the Saints weren't penalized, though. Safety Jenkins came over and shoved Harvin as he was coming down, but Jenkins appeared to ease up a bit and led with his hands. Their helmets never made contact.

Wilson's best: Wilson didn't have a great game, but he showed off what makes him so dangerous on back-to-back plays in the second quarter. On second-and-15, he scrambled away from pressure. And just as he was about to cross the line of scrimmage, he tossed a pass to wide-open receiver Kearse for a 25-yard gain. It was exactly the kind of play that Saints defenders had warned about before both meetings with Seattle this year, but Lewis and Hawthorne both got burned by abandoning their coverage to run up toward Wilson.

It can be a no-win situation for a defense, though. Because on the next play Wilson appeared to be in even more trouble deep in the pocket, but he scrambled free and turned on the jets for a 7-yard gain.

Jordan sensational: Jordan had a lot of monster performances this year, as he earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl. But this one ranks up there with his best. He was outstanding all game long, both as a pass-rusher and run defender. At different points, he chased down both Wilson and Lynch in the open field (earning a 0-yard sack on the play against Wilson and stuffing Lynch for a 4-yard loss). He stood up tight end Miller to force no gain by running back Robert Turbin. He forced a holding penalty on another run play. And he pressured Wilson into at least two key incomplete passes, among other highlights.

Two of the plays mentioned above (a forced incompletion and the sack) came on back-to-back plays inside New Orleans' 10-yard line, forcing Seattle to settle for a field goal.

Harper's best for last? Harper's future with the Saints is in doubt since the 31-year-old has become more of a part-time player, and he is due $3.15 million in salary and bonuses. But as I've written in the past, I wouldn't be shocked to see him come back at a reduced rate. And Saturday's performance against the Seahawks makes that possibility even more attractive. Harper had probably his best performance of the season, flying around as fast and aggressively as he did in his Pro Bowl prime.

Among his highlights: blowing up left tackle Russell Okung to disrupt Lynch and force a 2-yard loss on third-and-6 in the third quarter; chasing down Wilson in the open field and pulling him down by his shoulder (narrowly avoiding a horse-collar penalty) for an 8-yard gain on third-and-10 in the fourth quarter; crashing down on Harvin after a quick out pass for a 1-yard loss in the first quarter; and sticking Baldwin in the open field for a 6-yard gain on third-and-9 in the first quarter.

Other highlights: That goal-line stand in the second quarter started with a first-and-goal from the 3-yard line. But the entire Saints defense swallowed up Lynch for a 5-yard loss -- starting with safety Jenkins and followed by Hicks and Jordan. … Defensive tackle John Jenkins was credited with a sack when he snagged Wilson as he tried to scramble up the middle. … Lewis had a nice pass break-up against receiver Golden Tate on a third-and-2 stop in the fourth quarter. … Linebacker Curtis Lofton and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley also stood out on a handful of solid run stops and pressures.
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas (chest) and safety Rafael Bush (ankle) were held out of practice with injuries on Wednesday. Everyone else fully participated.

Thomas
Thomas is a new addition to the injury list. The severity of his injury -- or when it occurred -- is unknown. Thomas did not touch the ball in the fourth quarter of New Orleans’ 42-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday, but many starters hit the bench late in the game since the score was so lopsided.

It’s always possible that the Saints just wanted to give Thomas an extra day of rest on Wednesday, so his status could become a little clearer on Thursday and Friday.

Thomas would be a significant loss for the Saints. He has been one of their most reliable offensive weapons this year with a team-high 549 rushing yards, a career-high 77 receptions for 513 yards and five combined touchdowns. He also has an impressive history of producing for the Saints in cold-weather games like the one they’re expected to face Saturday night at Philadelphia. Earlier this week, the Chicago native said he loves playing in cold weather.

If Thomas is out or limited, however, the Saints do still have good depth at the running back position with Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, impressive undrafted rookie Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet. Ingram has been playing terrific in small doses over the past three weeks with 108 rushing yards on 17 carries (6.4 yards per carry) and 49 receiving yards on four receptions.

Bush, meanwhile, would also be a significant loss for the Saints since they also lost rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro to a season-ending ankle injury last week. But it’s also unclear how severe his injury is. Bush has been dealing with the ankle injury for the past month. He missed three games, but he returned to the lineup last week against Tampa Bay as the Saints’ third safety behind starters Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper.
The New Orleans Saints’ injury report shrunk a bit on Thursday. Only three players remained out of practice – linebacker Keyunta Dawson (calf), safety Rafael Bush (ankle) and tight end Josh Hill (hamstring).

Defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley (back) returned to practice on a limited basis. Defensive lineman Glenn Foster (knee) remained limited. And offensive tackle Terron Armstead (nose) returned to full participation.

If Bunkley is able to play Sunday against the St. Louis Rams, the Saints would have all 22 projected starters available.
METAIRIE, La. – Although the New Orleans Saints didn’t practice on Wednesday, they were required to submit a projected injury report. Five players were listed as “Did Not Practice” – offensive tackle Zach Strief (ankle), defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley (ankle), defensive end Glenn Foster (knee), outside linebacker Keyunta Dawson (calf) and safety Rafael Bush (ankle).

Strief left Monday night’s game early because of the ankle injury and was limping noticeably on his way back to the locker room. But after the game he said he’s optimistic he won’t be out long.

“We’ll see,” Strief said Monday night. “I’m not a guy that has to be 100 percent; I’m a bad enough athlete. I think it scared me a good bit on the field, but it’s not as bad as it could have been.”

Strief will certainly be missed if he can't play Sunday night against the Carolina Panthers. But second-year backup Bryce Harris has gotten a decent amount of experience as a fill-in and extra blocker this season, and should be capable of stepping up to fill the void.

Bunkley and Bush are new to the injury report this week. The severity of their injuries is unknown. Foster and Dawson were held out of Monday’s game with their injuries.

Looking at New Orleans' free agents

February, 11, 2013
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Time to continue our look at the NFC South’s potential free agents with the New Orleans Saints.

Their list includes left tackle Jermon Bushrod, linebacker Jonathan Casillas, backup quarterback Chase Daniel, defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, receiver Devery Henderson, linebacker Ramon Humber, cornerback Elbert Mack, defensive end Turk McBride, tackle Will Robinson, receiver Courtney Roby and linebacker Scott Shanle. Center Brian De La Puente, center Justin Drescher, defensive end Junior Galette and running back Chris Ivory can be restricted free agents. Safety Rafael Bush, guard Eric Olsen and tight end Michael Higgins can be exclusive-rights free agents.

The big names are Bushrod, who has made himself into a Pro Bowler, and Ellis, a former first-round pick. Although the Saints have major salary-cap issues, they are likely to at least make an attempt to keep Bushrod. But it’s important to remember the Saints aren’t like most other teams when it comes to their philosophy on paying offensive linemen. They have a history of paying more to guards (see Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs) than they do to tackles and Bushrod could get big money on the open market.

Ellis never has lived up to his draft status and, with the Saints switching to a 3-4 defense, I’m not sure he’s a good fit for the scheme.

Henderson and Shanle used to be key players. But age started to catch up to them last season and I don’t see the Saints making a big push to keep them.

Falcons make roster moves

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The Atlanta Falcons were the first NFC South team to officially announce their roster moves to get down to 53 players.

They released center Brett Romberg and waived safety Rafael Bush, wide receiver Kevin Cone, wide receiver Drew Davis, guard Andrew Jackson, linebacker Robert James, defense end Emmanuel Stephens, tackle Jose Valdez and quarterback John Parker Wilson. The Falcons reached an injury settlement with tight end Ryan Winterswyk.

I’ll be back in a bit with an analysis of Atlanta’s roster.

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