When the 2014 offseason began, the Saints assembled a checklist of tasks that, if accomplished, would let them select the best players available, regardless of position, in the NFL draft May 8-10.
Not everything on that list has been checked off, but the vast majority of it has, General Manager Mickey Loomis said Wednesday at LSU’s Pro Day.
“I don’t know that I would say we’ve got no holes, but I feel we have a good team,” Loomis told reporters in the LSU football team’s indoor practice facility. “And we’re going to draft the best players available that fit our club.”
Much of the conversations Loomis and Saints coach Sean Payton had with the media focused on two recently completed items: acquiring free-agent cornerback Champ Bailey and matching Atlanta’s offer for restricted free-agent safety Rafael Bush.
Though he will be 36 in June, Bailey is a 12-time Pro Bowler with 53 career interceptions, the third-most among active players. The Saints were able to lure him on a two-year deal that reportedly guaranteed him only $500,000, though it’s loaded with millions of dollars in performance incentives.
After playing about two of every three defensive snaps for the Saints in 2013 and impressing, the 26-year-old Bush is penciled in as the No. 3 safety on a unit that has a proclivity for deploying three safeties. He signed an offer to play for Atlanta for the next two years and earn up to $4.5 million, but the Saints kept him from leaving by matching that compensation package.
It became evident Wednesday that those deals were possible because nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley took a 2014 pay cut of nearly $2.9 million. Originally owed $4.5 million in salary and bonuses, he will now make about $1.65 million, according to information from the NFL Players Association website as well as media reports.
After Bunkley’s pay cut, the Saints were about $4.89 million under the salary cap Wednesday evening, the NFLPA site said. It did not appear that reflected the deals of either Bailey or Bush.
Bailey’s arrival and the retention of Bush prevented a loss of depth in a secondary that was No. 2 against the pass in 2013. That was crucial for the Saints’ “best player available” draft goals, Loomis said.
“That’s a valuable position — corner,” Loomis said, echoing the philosophies of Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan on that spot of the field. Bailey should fit “just right,” Loomis added.
As for Bush, Payton said New Orleans’ rivalry with Atlanta didn’t influence the action they took with the safety.
“It could’ve been any of the other 30 teams,” Payton said. “It happens in the division. It happens outside the division. It’s really just paying attention to how you see the player, what you see the player doing.”
Judging from Payton’s remarks, it sounded like the Saints would have cut nine-year veteran Bunkley if he hadn’t agreed to a slice in pay. Payton nonetheless praised Bunkley’s showing in 2013; the run-stuffing tackle got in on 13 tackles and one tackle for a loss despite missing four games with a calf injury.
“We saw really good signs from him,” Payton said. “He knows the position. We’re excited he re-signed.”
Update: After Champ Bailey’s deal went on the books Thursday, the Saints were about $4.01 million under the salary cap.