Saints’ Rafael Bush signs offer sheet from Atlanta Falcons

Advocate file photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- Free safety Rafael Bush will remain in New Orleans after the Saints on Monday matched an offer sheet he signed with the Atlanta Falcons last week. Show caption
Advocate file photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- Free safety Rafael Bush will remain in New Orleans after the Saints on Monday matched an offer sheet he signed with the Atlanta Falcons last week.

Saints have until April 8 to match or restricted free agent goes to rival

The Atlanta Falcons are seeking a potential starter at safety, and they’re looking to pluck one from their nemeses.

Restricted Saints free-agent safety Rafael Bush on Thursday signed an offer sheet from the NFC South rival Falcons, who are searching for someone to replace the released Thomas DeCoud. The Saints have until April 8 to match the offer if they want to retain Bush and prevent him from leaving, according to the NFL transaction wire.

The Saints in March extended Bush the minimum $1.4 million, one-year contract tender, which gave them the right to match any offers from other teams the safety might consider. New Orleans would receive no compensation if Bush left because it handed him the lowest tender it could.

Details on the offer sheet from Atlanta weren’t immediately disclosed. Nonetheless, it’s a virtual certainty that Bush was offered a longer contract for more money.

The Saints don’t have a lot of salary-cap space as they assess the situation with Bush, which comes a little more than a month away from the 2014 draft. New Orleans was $2.2 million under the cap on Thursday afternoon, the NFL Players Association website said.

Atlanta had $8.2 million in cap room.

Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis was tight-lipped about what his organization’s plans were with Bush after news broke about the Falcons’ offer. “We received the offer sheet and will make a decision before Tuesday,” he wrote in a statement.

In his third season playing in the NFL and in his second year with the Saints, Bush was credited by the team with 45 tackles (29 of which were solo), six pass break-ups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery over 13 games and six starts. He also tacked on four special-teams stops as the Saints won 12 of their 18 games and made it to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.

Bush handled an increased workload well early in the season when safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper (neither of whom are on the team anymore) were injured. The analytics website Pro Football Focus gave Bush the 24th highest grade among NFL safeties in 2013 and rated him as the Saints’ best player at the position.

New Orleans at the moment does not have much depth at safety for the upcoming campaign. Only three New Orleans safeties are under contract: Jairus Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowler acquired in free agency; Kenny Vaccaro, a first-round draft pick in 2013 who had an impressive rookie season; and Marcus Ball, who spent the past two seasons in the Canadian Football League before signing with the Saints on Thursday.

Bush’s career began in Atlanta as an unrestricted free agent in 2010, and he was on the Falcons’ practice squad until Denver signed him away in 2011.

He played sparingly for the Broncos, who waived him at the end of August 2012. New Orleans soon claimed him.

Bush, who went to South Carolina State for college and wore No. 25, took the field in all 16 games for the Saints in 2012 and led the special teams unit with 15 tackles and a fumble recovery. His role on defense initially grew after Jenkins suffered a hamstring injury and landed on injured reserve — he had an interception, which he returned 40 yards; forced a fumble; and recovered another fumble, making it cool for New Orleans fans to don their No. 25 “R. Bush” jerseys to games again.

Heading into 2013, the Saints spoke openly about their growing expectations of Bush. He met them.

The Falcons created a need for themselves at free safety in February when they cut DeCoud, their starter since 2009. Atlanta coach Mike Smith and General Manager Thomas Dimitroff both grew familiar with Bush when he was with the Falcons.