The New Orleans Saints have matched the Atlanta Falcons’ contract offer to restricted free-agent safety Rafael Bush, agent Brian Anderson confirmed in an email.
Bush, who started his career with the Falcons out of South Carolina State, took to Twitter to confirm the news:
I’m still a saint yep
– rafael bush (@rbush36) April 7, 2014
The Falcons signed Bush to an offer sheet, reportedly worth $4.5 million over two years. He would have had a chance to start at free safety next to strong safety William Moore.
Moore and Bush talked before the start of free agency about the chance of teaming up in the secondary. Now, they’ll see each other twice a year in the NFC South.
The Falcons are left without a starting safety headed into the draft. They seem likely to target the position, possibly as high as the second round. They’ve already conducted a private workout with one of the draft’s top safeties, Louisville’s Calvin Pryor. But Pryor is expected to go in the first round.
The only other safeties on the Falcons’ roster are Kemal Ishmael and Zeke Motta, two seventh-round draft picks from last season. The Falcons have a void at free safety after releasing Thomas DeCoud.
The Saints didn’t want to lose Bush, even though it will be a tight squeeze for them under the salary cap.
New Orleans had less than $2 million in cap space to begin Monday. That included a $1.4 million charge for Bush because of the original qualifying offer the Saints made him. However, that doesn’t include their new deal for cornerback Champ Bailey, which hasn’t been processed yet.
The Saints may need to either restructure a current veteran’s contract or release a player to make it all fit.
That shows how much they value Bush, who will resume his role as the No. 3 safety behind starters Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro.
Bush played about 67 percent of the Saints’ defensive snaps last year in that role because the Saints featured so many three-safety packages. The hard hitter finished with a career-high 42 tackles and five pass defenses. He has also been a special teams coverage standout for New Orleans for the past two years.
Information from ESPN.com Saints reporter Mike Triplett was used in this report.Covered Bears for seven seasons at Chicago Tribune
Also worked at Chicago Sun-Times, Fresno Bee
Honorable mention, Football Writers Association of America for enterprise writing, 2002