Like countless others in New Orleans, Saints player Rafael Bush is pumped about the wheeling and dealing his team did this offseason, doling out one groundbreaking contract to acquire three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd in free agency and another to keep 2013 All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham on the roster long-term.
But it’s way too early to get “a big head” about the 2014 Saints, Bush said during a conversation with The Advocate on Wednesday. In the safety’s words, signing guys in the spring and summer “doesn’t automatically give you a pass to win a Super Bowl” in the winter.
“There’s still a whole lot of work left to be done,” Bush remarked. “I’m excited to get in camp and get things rolling.”
Talking eight days before the Saints are set to report to training camp at The Greenbrier golf resort in West Virginia, Bush said the six-year, $54 million free-agent contract New Orleans gave Byrd in March and the four-season, $40 million extension it handed Graham on Tuesday ensured the team headed into the 2014 campaign as loaded with talent as possible, which he called “half the process.”
Aside from the deals that made Byrd the best-paid NFL safety ever and Graham the tight end with the highest annual salary in league history, other Saints moves making waves this offseason included acquiring 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey in free agency and trading up seven spots in the first round of this year’s draft to select Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks, honored as the best wide receiver to play college football in 2013.
“Top to bottom, we have one of the best rosters in the NFL,” Bush said. “We have pretty much everything we need to beat anybody in the NFL.”
Even the Seahawks, who beat the Saints in Week 13 of the regular-season and in the divisional round of the playoffs at Seattle last year? Bush answered, “We have the team to beat anybody in the NFL, honestly.”
Bush nonetheless rattled off a number of other factors that will influence New Orleans’ success level.
The personnel returning to an offense that gained the NFL’s fourth-most yards and a defense that held opponents to the fourth-fewest yards must learn to play with the new arrivals to each unit in the upcoming practices and exhibition games. Players must do all they can to stay as healthy as feasible while coaches assemble the 53-man roster that will travel to Atlanta for the regular-season opener Sept. 7.
That’s why Atlanta is primarily occupying the Saints’ minds — not Seattle, which isn’t on New Orleans’ regular-season schedule and wouldn’t be an opponent until the playoffs, Bush said.
“We still have something to prove,” Bush added. “We still have to put in the work just like every other NFL team.”
Another topic Bush spoke about was heading back to his hometown of Williston, South Carolina, to host a football camp July 12 for 200 or so 8- to 16-year-olds.
But football wasn’t all Bush discussed with the campers. Thirteen days earlier, Williston experienced its first homicide in seven years, a killing in which a 19-year-old was gunned down in the street and a 17-year-old is accused of the deadly shooting.
Concerned about the violence, Bush made it a point to share an abridged version of his personal story: how, by eliminating all distractions, he was able to leave tiny Williston (population 3,100), attend South Carolina State and join the NFL in 2010 as a 22-year-old undrafted free agent signed by Atlanta.
Four years later, preparing for his third season with the Saints, Bush is penciled in as the No. 3 safety on a defense that had a tendency to line up three safeties in 2013. In April, he was offered $4.5 million to go back to Atlanta for two years, but the Saints retained his services by matching that compensation package.
The message was simple: If I did it, you can, too.
“I came from nothing — I started from the very, very bottom,” Bush said. “I just wanted to ... show them it could be done.”