NFC South: Atlanta Falcons

The NFL draft is right around the corner, and ESPN analyst Todd McShay has unleashed yet another mock draft Insider.

In terms of the Atlanta Falcons, McShay has stayed pretty much consistent in addressing their top needs: an offensive lineman and pass-rusher.

So did McShay stay consistent or go in a different direction this time around? Well, he altered his thinking just a tad.

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Breakdown: What jumps out immediately when glancing at the Atlanta Falcons' schedule: a season-opening tilt against their bitter NFC South rival New Orleans Saints on Sept. 7. The two met in last year's season opener in New Orleans, won by the Saints, 23-17. The Falcons actually played their most spirited game of 2013 when the Saints visited the Georgia Dome on Nov. 21 and walked away with a 17-13 victory. For a team that needs to start strong in 2014, the Falcons couldn't have asked for a better matchup in terms of the fans rallying behind them. The Falcons are 3-3 in season openers under Mike Smith.

As for the rest of the schedule, the Falcons have a few tough hurdles. First, they travel to London on Oct. 26 for a "home" game against the Detroit Lions. This is followed by a bye week, then with consecutive road contests against division foes Tampa Bay (Nov. 9) and Carolina (Nov. 16). And at the end of the season, the Falcons have a stretch of five tough games against Arizona, Green Bay (road), Pittsburgh, New Orleans (road), and Carolina.

Complaint department: I can hear Roddy White complaining right now. White was shivering in the cold at Lambeau Field last season when the Falcons made the trip to Green Bay in December. Guess what? The Falcons once again have to travel to Green Bay with a Dec. 8 matchup for ESPN's "Monday Night Football." The Falcons didn't handle the elements too well last year and let the ball slip one too many times in a 22-21 loss. Better pack long underwear and gloves. At least the Falcons get to travel to Minnesota early.

Not ready for prime time? We mentioned the Green Bay game on Monday night. The Falcons also face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday night in Week 3. Other than those games, the Falcons are not slated for any other prime-time games after having five on the schedule last season, with one flexed back to the afternoon (Green Bay). The new flex-scheduling rules allows for games to be changed as of Week 5. If the Falcons regain their footing and are back in the playoff hunt, it wouldn't be a surprise to see either of the last two games -- at New Orleans and home against Carolina -- moved to the evening. Facing the Bears at home on Oct. 12 with the possibility of Devin Hester exploding against his old team also sounds appealing as a prime-time matchup.

Strength of schedule: 11th, .512 | Vegas over/under : 8.5

Falcons Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Thursday, Sept. 18, Tampa Bay, 8:25 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, at Minnesota, 4:25 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, at NY Giants, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, Chicago, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, at Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, Detroit, 9:30 a.m. (in London)
Week 9: BYE
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, at Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, Arizona, 4:05 p.m.
Week 14: Monday, Dec. 8, at Green Bay, 8:30 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, at New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, Carolina, 1 p.m.
When Jadeveon Clowney sits down with a member of the Atlanta Falcons' front office or coaching staff during his Wednesday visit, the question about his desire is bound to come up.

Critics continue to offer harsh assessments of the South Carolina defensive end despite the 6-foot-6, 266-pound Clowney being the most athletically gifted prospect in the draft. Clowney has defended his work ethic, and one of his former coaches spoke up on his behalf.

South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward disputed the "lazy" tag recently placed on Clowney by an anonymous NFL scout.

"It doesn't offend me because I know JD, and I know all this talk about JD being lazy and all this talk about him not playing hard, I know all that is motivating him," Ward told in reference to Clowney. "And I know JD because I coached the kid and I recruited him, and that's not who he is. JD plays hard all the time."

There were some doubts about Clowney's commitment after he pulled himself from a game against Kentucky because of a rib injury. There also were questions about Clowney’s conditioning after he reportedly looked tired in the season opener against North Carolina. Clowney finished the season with just three sacks in 11 games.

"People go back to that North Carolina game and say he wasn’t in shape and was tired. People said that because the other three defensive linemen were down on the ground and had their hands down, and JD was standing up with his hands on hips," Ward explained. "That's what seven guys on defense do: They stand up with their hands on their hips. He's an athlete, so he stood up with his hands on his hips. So that made him tired? Not at all. But that's perception. He was down there ready when the ball was snapped. It's all perception.

"Anytime you're as highly regarded as JD is, most people are going to try to find out something that's wrong with you. And that's what the NFL's job is: They're going to try and bring his grade down because it's about paying him. I understand it. I coached in the league [as an Oakland assistant in 2006]. I know how it works."

Ward pointed to practices as evidence of how hard Clowney worked.

"I never had an issue with him. If anything, you had to slow him down," Ward said. "There were days that Coach [Steve] Spurrier would have to tell us to take him off the field or they weren't going to get anything accomplished on offense. And that's the truth because they couldn’t get a pass off on him."

Even if the work ethic isn't an issue, Ward continues to encourage Clowney to raise his level of play in preparation for the NFL.

"My biggest to thing to JD is he's going into a grown-man league and everybody is big and fast in that league," Ward said. "It's not going to be just his talent that's going to help him become a good player there. He's going to have to spend more time studying his opponent, the guy he's going against in that league, in order to beat him. And he didn’t have to do that a lot in college.

"He's going to have to find out what that guy's weakness is and take advantage of it, if he's going to have success in the NFL. And he'll grow into that. He's very highly motivated. He wants to be the first pick in the draft. He wants to be as good as advertised. And there's no question he'll be a great pro."

Clowney defended himself during the NFL combine when asked about Spurrier's assertion that he didn't work as hard as some of the program's other top players from the past.

"I really don't have anything to say about it. It's just opinion," Clowney said in February. "I believe I did work hard. You can pull out any practice tape from last year and you'll see that. That's what I would tell them. I'll tell anybody that. I'm always going to be working hard. No matter where I end up, I'm going to work hard and give the team everything I've got."

For the Falcons to end up being that team, they likely would have to trade up for Clowney. Atlanta currently holds the sixth overall pick. The teams with the top three picks -- Houston, St. Louis and Jacksonville -- all seem willing to trade down, while Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said he is open to trading up.
Seeing new defensive end Tyson Jackson toss 120 dumbbells around like trash bags Tuesday was a positive sign for an Atlanta Falcons team desperately in need of some heavy lifting.

Yet such strength means nothing if the Falcons fail to use it to their advantage on the field. Just ask general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

"It's functional strength," Dimitroff said this offseason. "Our guys were considerably stronger last year than they were the year before, interestingly enough, and we had some challenges with it. What I'm saying it, yes, we're going to continue to focus on strength increase. But it's the functional strength. It's being able to put them in the right spot to utilize their strength."

[+] EnlargePeter Konz
AP Photo/Paul AbellPeter Konz, who was pushed around at times last season, has "been living in the weight room."
That will all come in time. For now, the Falcons are using offseason workouts to get their bodies prepared for what should be a more physical 2014 campaign.

Coach Mike Smith seemed a bit more animated Tuesday as he explained part of the formula would be for winning the line of scrimmage, on both sides of the ball.

"One of the emphasis points for us as a coaching staff was to evaluate everything that we do," Smith said. "One of the things that became very apparent for us was that we need to get bigger and stronger. I think we've started doing that with our players. ... It's going to be very important for us to be a much bigger and stronger football team."

Smith is counting on AJ Neibel and his strength-and-conditioning staff to produce results as the Falcons go through Phase I of the offseason workout program. Smith and the other coaches are not allowed to oversee activity during the first two weeks, which started Monday.

"The offseason program has changed," Smith said, again emphasizing the bigger-stronger campaign. "If you'll look back and look what I said the very first time I was here in this room -- not in this room but over in that team meeting room -- I talked about what it takes to win in the National Football League. And I believe I said that you have to win the line of scrimmage. You have to have bigger and stronger players than your opponent. I feel like we've lost our way. I've lost my way a little bit.

"And the emphasis moving forward is going to be a bigger and stronger football team. And we're going to win the line of scrimmage."

Adding big, physical players such as offensive guard Jon Asamoah, nose tackle Paul Soliai, and Jackson were the first steps toward improvement. New offensive line coach Mike Tice immediately encouraged center/guard Peter Konz to bulk up, and Konz, who was pushed around more often than not last season, responded by "living in the weight room" so far this offseason.

"I think it's more for the younger guys," Tice explained in January, during a break at this year's Senior Bowl practices. "I think the younger guys, as they grow into their bodies and they stop growing and they start maturing, physically, I think that they get stronger and take a big leap and not only take a big leap with strength, but when they gain strength, they gain confidence.

"I see us in a couple different areas needing to gain that confidence. And I think a good offseason in the weight room will help some guys."

The first two players quarterback Matt Ryan mentioned Tuesday in terms of working hard in the weight room were tackle Lamar Holmes and Konz. The Falcons' offensive line obviously failed at the line of scrimmage last season as Ryan was the most pressured quarterback in the league.

"I think everybody takes a good, hard look in the mirror when things go well and then also when things don't go well," Ryan said. "And I know that's one of the most important things for me as a player and as a professional is to take a good, honest evaluation of yourself after a season and try and find areas that you can improve. And so those guys, they've made a conscious effort to get into the weight room and to move weight.

"We're not naive. Those guys (the offensive linemen) have taken some heat. And they've had to answer questions and tough questions all of last season and through the offseason so far. And I think they've taken it as a challenge. And they're in there working as hard they possibly can. I've been really impressed with the way they've handled it professionally and also how they have taking it personally, too, and want to become better and are doing everything that they can in order to improve."

Konz appears to be taking things personal. But again, he understands it's about more than just bulking up.

"You know what? We never talk about strength in the film room because it's all about technique," Konz said near the end of last season. "If you open up any book, it's all about leverage. And strength is important when you know how to use it with your footwork.

"Strength is very important, when used in combination with technique. That's what most important: lowest man wins. If you've got your hands on somebody and you've got them, they're going to have a hell of a time trying to get away from you."

If the Falcons don't improve up front, the season could get away from them again.
Most of the attention this week involving the Atlanta Falcons is sure to revolve around the list of pre-draft visitors, which includes defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, outside linebacker Khalil Mack, and offensive tackle Jake Matthews.

But there is another matter to attend to in Flowery Branch, Ga.: The Falcons begin the offseason workout program on Monday.

Head coach Mike Smith recently addressed the start of offseason workouts during a radio interview with 790 the Zone's "Locker Room" hosted by Alge Crumpler and JP Peterson.

"The CBA kind of limits what we can do," Smith said. "We have a nine-week program which we can spend time with the players. And really, the first four weeks, there's not a whole lot of on the field activities going on. So we're getting ready to start our program on the 21st of April, and the first two weeks will be spent in the classroom and in the weight room. And then the next two weeks will be on the field. The offense and defense cannot work against each other. ... There's not a whole lot you're going to be able to get accomplished in those four weeks."

The first phase of the offseason workout program according to the Collective Bargaining Agreement: Phase One shall consist of the first two weeks of the Club's offseason workout program. Subject to the additional rules set forth in Section 5 of this Article, Phase One activities shall be limited to strength and conditioning and physical rehabiliation only. During Phase One, only full-time or part-time strength and conditioning coaches, who have no other coaching responsibilities with the club, shall be allowed on the field; no other coaches shall be allowed on the field or to otherwise participate in or observe activities. No footballs shall be permitted to be used (only ``dead ball activities), except that quarterbacks may elect to throw to receivers provided they are not covered by any other player. Players cannot wear helmets during Phase One.

Here are some things to keep in mind as the Falcons get back to work:

Julio sighting: During Tuesday's workout session, the Falcons will allow media members to take pictures of the players in action. Plenty of attention is sure to be on wide receiver Julio Jones, provided Jones is not kept from the public eye. He's coming off foot surgery and is ahead of schedule in his recovery, according to Smith. Watching Jones simply walking normally would be a positive sign. The real test will be when he starts running and cutting on the field.

Ryan's Hope: Also on Tuesday, the Falcons will make quarterback Matt Ryan available to the media. During a radio interview last week, Ryan talked about the team being open to his input in terms of the draft. Ryan might be smart to beg the bosses to add an offensive tackle in the first round. Ryan can't survive another season like he had last year, and he was more banged up than he let on. Auburn's Greg Robinson, Michigan's Taylor Lewan, or Texas A&M's Matthews would look awfully nice lining up at one of the tackle spots.

Catching on: Ryan shouldn't waste time taking tight end Levine Toilolo out to the practice field. No one expects Toilolo to be Tony Gonzalez, but the former fourth-round pick from Stanford will get his opportunity to be the primary tight end. Personally, I don't believe the Falcons are going into the draft looking for a starting tight end. There might not be a big emphasis on the tight end in the offense this season, anyhow.

Strength in numbers: In speaking to a number of Falcons' offensive linemen near the end of last season, most of them agreed getting in the weight room needed to be a priority this offseason. Center/guard Peter Konz said he's been living in the weight room since season's end, and that needs to continue if he hopes to work his way back into the lineup this season. But it's not just about bulking up. It's about functional strength. "You know what? We never talk about strength in the film room because it’s all about technique," Konz said. "If you open up any book, it’s all about leverage. And strength is important when you know how to use it with your footwork."

Any volunteers? Remember, offseason workouts are voluntary. But for a team coming off a 4-12 season, it would be wise for the Falcons to have perfect attendance.
The fun behind mock drafts is opinions can change on a daily basis.

Such has been the case this year with mixed opinions about the quarterback class as well as the top pass-rushers.

Everyone, however, seems to agree South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is the most physically gifted and dominating player in the draft, which is why he should be the No. 1 overall pick. But until the Houston Texans actually come out and declare Clowney as their guy, the speculation will continue.

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South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, considered the top prospect in this year’s NFL draft, is scheduled to visit the Atlanta Falcons next week, according to a league source.

Clowney said during his Pro Day that he was in the process of coordinating a meeting with the Falcons. His visit coincides with another appearance from a top prospect as Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews is scheduled to visit Atlanta next week as well.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
David Newton Jadeveon Clowney shined during position drills at South Carolina's pro day workout.
Clowney has been touted as the No. 1 overall pick -- held by the Houston Texans -- by many draft experts. ESPN’s Todd McShay had this to say about Clowney in his latest mock draft:

"The Texans really need a QB, and (Blake) Bortles has the highest ceiling of any passer in this draft, but I just think it’s going to be too difficult for the Texans to pass on Clowney. He is the best player in this class and the most naturally talented defensive lineman I’ve ever evaluated, and guys like him simply don’t come around that often."

Clowney recently visited the Jacksonville Jaguars and St. Louis Rams, and reportedly visited the Detroit Lions on Wednesday. He made headlines this week after a story surfaced about him not doing any other private workouts after Clemson offensive tackle Brandon Thomas tore his ACL during such a workout.

Bus Cook, Clowney’s agent, told USA Today that his client could go through one more abbreviated private workout prior to the May 8 draft.

It is unclear whether Clowney already had a private workout with the Falcons.

Cook also dismissed comments from anonymous NFL teams calling Clowney spoiled and lazy.

"We don't give any consideration to that," Cook told USA TODAY Sports. "None of that has bothered us. It doesn't bother Jadeveon. That's not something that's been asked of me by any of the teams that I've talked to. Just go watch the tape."

If the Falcons truly have an interest in Clowney, they likely would have to trade up for him. General manager Thomas Dimitroff said he is open to trading up or down. And during this year’s NFL combine, Clowney mentioned such a scenario involving the Falcons.

"I wish they could trade up for me," Clowney told, "but I hope I don’t fall to No. 6. I like Atlanta -- a lot. They’re pretty good. They’ve got some guys from South Carolina on the team, also. And it’s close to home."

The 6-foot-5-inch, 266-pound Clowney, a native of Rock Hill, S.C., solidified his standing as a top talent with a great performance at his pro day, where he showed the ability to drop into the coverage to go with blazing speed.

The Falcons sorely need help at pass-rusher after finishing tied for 29th in the league last season with just 32 sacks. Although the Falcons are preparing for more of a 3-4-base defensive scheme, the multiplicity they seek on defense would make Clowney a fit regardless.
Don't be surprised if Auburn tackle Greg Robinson's name surfaces in relation to workouts or visits conducted by the Atlanta Falcons over the next week or so.

The Falcons definitely could target an offensive tackle if they keep the sixth overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft. And they've reportedly already worked out top tackle prospects Jake Matthews from Texas A&M and Taylor Lewan from Michigan, so Robinson naturally would be next up in the workout circuit.

The Falcons also continue to bring in top players for visits, and Matthews has a visit scheduled for next week. So it would only make sense for both Robinson and Lewan to make the trek to Atlanta, too, if they haven't already.

ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay believe the Falcons will take Matthews with the sixth pick, although Kiper's opinion could change when his latest mock draft appears this week. At least one mock draft, posted this week by's Bucky Brooks, has Robinson falling to the Falcons at No. 6 with the St. Louis Rams taking Matthews with the second overall pick. There also has been talked this week of Robinson being worthy of consideration as the first overall pick, currently held by the Houston Texans.

However it all unfolds, the Falcons will have options. Protection still seems to be issue that needs to be addressed first over adding another pass-rusher, although Buffalo's Khalil Mack would be hard to pass up if he falls to No. 6.

South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney should be the top pick and likely won't fall to the Falcons. He is expected to visit Atlanta in the next few weeks, but don't count on him being a Falcon.

Matthews, Robinson or Lewan would be the safe bets.
The possibility still exists for the Atlanta Falcons to trade up or down in this year's NFL draft, as general manager Thomas Dimitroff has reiterated throughout the offseason.

But if the Falcons keep the sixth overall pick, they should find an impact player. The last time they owned the No. 6 pick was in 2011, when the Falcons selected game-changing receiver Julio Jones. Dimitroff, of course, traded away five draft picks in order to move up for Jones.

Matt Haley of the Falcons' football communications department put out some interesting figures recently. Players selected sixth overall have earned 136 Pro Bowls, 46 first-team All-Pro selections, and 10 Hall of Fame nods. The last to achieve the latter honor was offensive tackle Walter Jones, the sixth overall pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 1997 and a 2014 Hall of Fame inductee.

Maybe the Falcons will find their own Hall of Fame tackle in a draft class that includes Auburn's Greg Robinson, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Michigan's Taylor Lewan.

Here's a look at the sixth-overall picks from the last 10 drafts, with a mixture of hits and misses:

Eventually, the Atlanta Falcons will have to addresss their depth at linebacker, considering how injuries affected the position throughout the 2013 season.

The Falcons seem destined to draft a linebacker or two with 10 picks in this year's draft. The question is, how high will they be willing to invest in a linebacker?

Well, Montana's Jordan Tripp seems to be making a steady rise up the draft charts and some believe he won't last beyond the third round.

And the Falcons continue to take a close look at Tripp.'s Gil Brandt first reported Tripp would make a pre-draft visit, and the linebacker prospect was actually was in Atlanta on Monday visiting with the team.

The 6-foot-3, 234-pound Tripp entered the draft process projected as a late-round pick. He is listed as an outside linebacker but would project better as an inside linebacker as the Falcons move toward a 3-4-base defense. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds at the combine. And Tripp called himself the most versatile linebacker in the draft.

Drafting a player from Montana wouldn't be new to the Falcons. They drafted defensive end/linebacker Kroy Biermann in the fifth round out of Montana in 2008 and also drafted former Montana safety Shann Schillinger in the sixth round in 2010. Biermann is set to return from a season-ending Achilles' injury while Schillinger was released by the Falcons and picked up by the Tennessee Titans.
The Atlanta Falcons are continuing to do their homework on a variety of pass-rushers in preparation for the NFL draft.

Boise State's Demarcus Lawrence, a defensive end/outside linebacker prospect, is in Atlanta for a visit, according to a league source. Lawrence is projected as a second-round pick, although his strong workouts have earned him first-round consideration.

The 6-foot-3, 251-pound Lawrence is a South Carolina native who attended Butler Community College (Kansas) before transferring to Boise State. Last season, he led the Mountain West Conference with 10.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss. He then declared early for the draft.

Lawrence has impressed scouts with his aggressiveness and instincts. At the combine, he showed the ability to drop into coverage while performing linebacker drills. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.69 seconds at Boise State's pro day.

Lawrence's agent, David Canter, recently tweeted that his client had 10 visits lined up in 14 days.

The Falcons sorely need pass-rush help and are looking into a number of first- and second-round-caliber talents to possibly fill the void. Most expect them to consider Buffalo's Khalil Mack in the first round if he's still available with the sixth overall pick. Trading up for South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney seems to be a long shot at this point, with Clowney projected to go No. 1 overall to the Houston Texans.

ESPN Draft expert Todd McShay has Auburn pass-rusher Dee Ford falling to the Falcons in the second round of his latest mock draft.

BYU outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy is visiting the Falcons next Wednesday while UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr is visiting the week of April 21. Mack, who already had a private workout with the Falcons, doesn't have a visit scheduled with the Falcons just yet.
As the Atlanta Falcons inch close to the NFL draft, adding an offensive tackle, pass-rusher and safety appear to be the priorities.

The team continues to work out players from coast to coast trying to determine which draft-eligible players are capable of helping them most this coming season.

Currently sitting with the sixth-overall pick, the Falcons should have their choice of impact players on both sides of the ball. And the latest selections in ESPN draft expert Todd McShay's updated two-round Mock Draft 4.0 Insider are names associated with the Falcons throughout the draft process thus far.

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If the Atlanta Falcons weren't considering drafting a safety high in next month's NFL draft, it definitely has to be under strong consideration now.

They thought they found a starter in restricted free agent Rafael Bush from the New Orleans Saints, a player the Falcons signed to a two-year, $4.5 million offer sheet. Bush even apparently told Falcons starting strong safety William Moore he wanted to get some attention from Atlanta.

Well, Bush ended up back with the Saints as New Orleans matched the Falcons' offer on Monday. And the Falcons were left without a legitimate option opposite Moore in the secondary.

The free-agent market is thin now, so the Falcons might have to seriously consider drafting a safety in the second round. The last time they drafted a safety that high, they plucked Moore from Missouri in 2009. The moved worked out pretty well, especially considering the leadership and toughness Moore brings to the team.

An offensive tackle or pass-rusher are likely to be the targets in the first round, as the Falcons currently own the sixth overall pick. The team did conduct a private workout with a safety projected to go in the first round: Louisville's Calvin Pryor. And Moore recently tweeted that Pryor is the one rookie he would love to have next to him. But that would appear to be an option only if the Falcons decided to trade down.

A prospect to keep an eye on is Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward. He's relatively small at 5-foot-11 and 193 pounds, but Ward already impressed the Falcons at the Senior Bowl. He just needs to show he's durable, especially coming off foot surgery.

Another intriguing player might be Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller, a cornerback who is capable of playing free safety. He has been projected anywhere from late-first round to the third round.

The other scenario to watch for is what happens after the draft. Some veteran safeties might be released, which could give the Falcons some options to consider.

A void at free safety was created when the Falcons decided to part ways with veteran Thomas DeCoud, a former third-round pick.
The offer sheet that restricted free-agent safety Rafael Bush signed with the Atlanta Falcons is worth $4.5 million over two years, a league source told The Advocate. The source also said Bush is hoping the New Orleans Saints won’t match the deal because Atlanta is offering a chance at a starting job.

New Orleans has until Tuesday to match the Falcons’ offer. If the Saints don’t match the offer, they will not receive any draft pick compensation from Atlanta.

The Saints have certainly been acting like a team that’s prepared to let Bush go this week. They agreed to deals with veteran cornerback Champ Bailey and former Canadian Football League safety Marcus Ball to add depth to their secondary.

Letting Bush go would free up $1.4 million in salary-cap space -- which the Saints probably need to be able to fit Bailey’s new deal under the cap. Bailey’s deal is worth up to $7 million, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Bush, 26, was expected to resume his role as the Saints’ No. 3 safety, which was practically a full-time job the way the Saints liked to use three safeties last year. The hard-hitting safety played 67 percent of the Saints’ defensive snaps when he was healthy last year (he missed three games due to injury). He finished with a career-high 42 tackles and five pass defenses.

The Falcons, however, are offering an even greater opportunity. They have a vacancy in their starting lineup since they decided to release veteran Thomas DeCoud last month.

Bush would become the second-most experienced safety on the Falcons’ roster. And he is friends with the Falcons’ other starting safety, William Moore -- making the switch even more attractive.

The Atlanta Falcons are hoping to fill one of their biggest needs -- and to dent their longtime rivals, the New Orleans Saints, in the process.

Atlanta signed restricted free agent safety Rafael Bush to an offer sheet, meaning the Saints have until Tuesday to match the offer or lose Bush with no draft-pick compensation.

Terms of the Falcons' offer have not been disclosed. The Saints previously offered Bush a one-year deal at the lowest qualifying offer of $1.431 million. The Saints have given no indication yet whether or not they plan to match Atlanta's offer.

The reason the Saints would receive no draft-pick compensation is because Bush originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2010 -- with none other than the Falcons in 2010. Bush then spent a year with the Denver Broncos before finding a home as a part-time starter and special teams standout with the Saints over the past two years.

Bush had 42 tackles and five pass defenses last year as a part-time starter for the Saints, who often featured three safeties together in their nickel and dime packages. The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder has also been a standout in special teams coverage for New Orleans for the past two years.

Both teams could really use Bush, since they're both very thin at the safety position.

The Saints have two excellent starters in newly-signed free agent Jairus Byrd and second-year pro Kenny Vaccaro. They also recently signed Canadian Football League transplant Marcus Ball. But those are the only three safeties on the Saints' current roster.

The Saints recently brought in veteran cornerback Champ Bailey for a visit. It's possible that Bailey could be used as a pseudo-safety in nickel and dime packages if the Saints decide to add him.

Atlanta, meanwhile, has an even bigger need at safety after releasing longtime starting free safety Thomas DeCoud last month. They have a standout starter in strong safety William Moore. But the next two safeties on the Falcons' depth chart are unproven seventh-round picks from last year -- Zeke Motta and Kemal Ishmael.

Motta, who replaced DeCoud for a game last season, is coming off of surgery for a cervical fracture.

The Falcons released DeCoud in part because of his $4.8 million salary-cap cost and in part because they didn't feel he was a physical enough tackler and didn't make enough plays on the ball.

Bush, who was primarily used as a deep safety for the Saints, does bring some physicality to the position.

Moore and Bush are friends, and he previously said that he had talked with Bush about the possibility of joining the Falcons.

Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure contributed to this report.