Rafael Bush is not yet lost, but he has signed an offer sheet with the Atlanta Falcons. Because the Saints gave Bush the lowest restricted free agent tender, they now have 5 days to match that offer sheet or they will lose him with no compensation. There’s no word yet on how much the offer sheet is. When you tender a player at the lowest level, the compensation you get in return is the original round that player was drafted in if you elect not to match any offer sheet he’d sign with another team. Since Rafael Bush came to the league as an undrafted rookie free agent, the Saints would get no compensation. But that’s exactly why I always knew this day would come at some point in this offseason.
Let’s face it, Rafael Bush is good. He was arguably the best safety on the Saints roster last year once Kenny Vaccaro went down. When the offseason started and he officially became a restricted free agent, the Saints had four choices:
1. Try to negotiate and sign him to a long term deal. This almost never happens with a restricted free agent.
2. Give Bush a 1st round tender of $3.113 million, which would guarantee no team would pursue him.
3. Give Bush a 2nd round tender of $2.187 million, which would also pretty much guarantee no team would pursue him. Let’s be honest, no one is giving a 2nd rounder for Bush.
4. Give Bush the lowest tender at $1.431 million, which they did.
Now I was admittedly surprised the Saints opened the door to losing him by giving him the lowest tender. Only 700k more would have pretty much guaranteed his return. But the Saints rolled the dice, likely due to their cap situation. For those of you that think the Saints shouldn’t invest more in a “backup safety”, I respectfully disagree. While the addition of Jairus Byrd to pair with Kenny Vaccaro makes it clear the Saints are a two headed monster at safety, Bush pretty much is a starter. The number of snaps he played all season long were significant, and don’t forget the Saints lost both Roman Harper and Kenny Vaccaro for extended periods which increased his workload. Even when both were healthy, Bush would still come in for obvious passing downs as Harper would go to the bench, and Vaccaro would move up to the slot. The amount of snaps he played suggest that really three safeties are starters in this defense. Bush was in the top 11 for most snaps of all defensive players on the roster last season. Further, his performance was excellent. He’s shown he has good instincts, he can play the pass, and he’s extremely physical. The hit he put on Percy Harvin in the playoffs may have been stupid, and it may have been a penalty, but those are the kind of hits you want your defense leave on players. Why? Because it puts fear in them and makes them soft.
Once the Saints gave Bush the lowest tender, it was only a matter of time before another team pounced. To be honest I’m surprised it took this long. The fact that it’s the Falcons is hard to swallow. I remember several years ago when role players like Lance Moore, Pierre Thomas and Roman Harper made up a core of young talent that was blossoming in the organization. Now I’d similarly view the young core of rising young players as Kenny Vaccaro, Junior Galette, Kenny Stills, Khiry Robinson, Terron Armstead, Akiem Hicks, John Jenkins and Bush. I don’t count guys like Keenan Lewis, Cam Jordan or Byrd because they are established successful vets at this point. You could argue Galette is already there too. But the point is Bush is one of about 7 or 8 guys that I view as the young core of emerging talent that has the potential to be widely recognized as plus starters around the league. To expose yourself to his departure by getting nothing in return is how you get worse as you lose an important part of your still developing roster.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the Saints will lose him, but you know the Falcons aren’t stupid and they gave him a contract that will tax the Saints’ cap, especially in year one. Restructures (maybe Bunkley, Colston, Grubbs and/or Evans) and a long term Jimmy Graham deal could give the team space, and the Saints already have a little over $2 million in space to play around with. But if the Saints felt they only needed to invest roughly $1.4 million for one year in Bush at the beginning of the offseason, it remains to be seen if they can stomach money that will likely be close to or over what the 2nd round tender they chose not to invest on him was.
Don’t count out Mickey Loomis in this equation. He’s not going to lose Rafael Bush without a plan. But losing Bush when you could have invested just $700,000 more to keep him is a mistake any way you slice it. Bush is worth $2 million a season. It remains to be seen what the offer sheet will be, but now there’s a number where it probably doesn’t make sense to match it and you’d be better off letting him go. That scenario would have never been on the table with the 2nd round tender (because Atlanta would have never risked the offer sheet contract PLUS the loss of a 2nd round draft pick for Bush).
And those of you that suggest the Saints were already prepared for this loss by signing Marcus Ball, sorry, I don’t buy it. First of all, Bush came in on passing downs and largely played two deep safety with Malcolm Jenkins when Vaccaro went to the slot. You could argue that’s in the role of a “strong” safety, but he was mostly a cover guy over the top. Based on what I’ve read of Ball so far, that’s not a role he’s suited for. Ball sounds more like a guy that could play on 1st and 2nd down with the run packages much like Harper did. That is, if he even makes the 53 man roster. We know Bush would make the 53 man roster because he’s a proven starting NFL quality safety and difference making special teamer.
So we’ll see in seven days how this plays out, but it should have never gotten to that point, and I feel comfortable in saying the Saints kind of blew it on this one. Now they’re exposed to losing a valuable member of the defense. And Bush could go the way of Bobby Hebert, Morten Andersen, Ironhead Heyward, Brett Maxie, Joe Horn, Aaron Stecker and Luke McCown. Sure we still mostly love all those guys, but they will all forever carry that designation of leaving the Saints and going to the Falcons. Of course it had to be the Falcons. Pretty simple solution to all this, though: just match the offer.