When free agency started on March 11, the Saints immediately addressed a dearth of turnovers in 2013 by acquiring former Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd, whose 22 career interceptions since joining the NFL in 2009 are the most among players at his position.
They landed another pick-off artist on Friday, agreeing to terms on a two-year, free-agent deal with 12-time Pro Bowl defensive back Roland “Champ” Bailey, the team announced.
League sources familiar with the situation told The Advocate about the deal with Bailey about 30 minutes before the Saints’ announcement. ESPN’s Adam Schefter and NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport later reported the contract was worth up to $7 million.
Bailey’s 52 career interceptions are the third-most among active NFL players. The three-time All-Pro and future Hall of Famer had a productive 2012, but the former Bronco is coming off the worst year of his career — a preseason foot injury limited Bailey to just eight games in 2013, three of which were in the playoffs and included Denver’s loss to Seattle in the Super Bowl.
Nonetheless, it’s definitely possible that Bailey will challenge for the spot opposite Lewis, who led the Saints with four interceptions and was second on the team with nine pass break-ups.
“We are excited to be able to add a future Hall of Fame player with the addition of Champ Bailey,” Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis said. “His career accomplishments mirror that of his high character, and he’s a very prideful and competitive player who we believe will add to our defense. Having spent time with him recently and in our discussions with him, I know that he’s thrilled to be joining the New Orleans Saints and starting a new chapter in his professional life.”
Other cornerbacks competing for the job of complementing Lewis are 2012 fifth-round pick Corey White, who took over starting duties after the now-released Jabari Greer suffered a season-ending leg injury in Week 12; and Patrick Robinson, who is heading into his fifth campaign with the Saints but hurt his knee in the second game of 2013 and missed the rest of the year.
If Bailey doesn’t win that job yet still makes the roster, there’s no question the Saints will hope he provides heaps of veteran guidance to the secondary. Aside from the aforementioned players, other pieces to the secondary include safety Kenny Vaccaro, entering his second year; cornerback Rod Sweeting, also a rookie in 2013; and cornerback Trevin Wade, a seventh-round pick by Cleveland in 2012 who joined New Orleans as a free agent in the middle of last season.
The Saints in March extended a one-year, $1.4 million tender to restricted free-agent safety Rafael Bush, who’s been with the Saints since 2012. But Bush recently signed an offer sheet from the Atlanta Falcons, and the Saints have to match it by April 8 or the safety will leave them for no compensation. Bush played with Bailey in Denver in 2011 and in the 2012 preseason.
Bailey, who has 15 seasons of NFL experience and will be 36 in June, spent his first five years in the league with Washington and was traded to Denver in 2004.
He has four career interception returns for touchdowns, the last of which was in 2006. That year, he picked off a career-high 10 passes for a personal best 162 return yards.
Denver released Bailey at the beginning of March to save about $10 million in salary-cap space.
Saints coach Sean Payton recently said cornerbacks talented in coverage and at creating turnovers are always at a premium in the NFL. Bailey in his best years would’ve certainly fit that bill for a defense that finished fourth overall and second against the pass in 2013 but also fourth from the bottom in takeaways, of which New Orleans had 19.
Bailey’s visit to New Orleans began being widely reported upon on Tuesday. Those reports were prompted by Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis’ decision to post a photo of himself posing next to Bailey at team headquarters on the social media service Instagram, and there were accounts of the two working out together later in the week.
In an interview on Wednesday with The Advocate’s content partners at WWL-TV, Lewis said introducing a player like Bailey to the roster “would definitely help me uplift my game.”
“He’s a great guy,” Lewis said. “He’s been doing it for some years now, Pro Bowl-caliber player and whenever you have an opportunity to add guys like that to the roster, it’s always beneficial.
“I’ve got a lot of faith in Rod Sweeting, Patrick Robinson, Corey White — the guys we have, but (being around Bailey) would definitely help me uplift my game. … He’s a championship guy, so anytime you’ve got a guy like that in your locker room, it only boosts you further to your goals.”
Saints players flocked to Twitter to celebrate the acquisition of Bailey.
Byrd tweeted, “Yessir! ..welcome to the squad,” tacking on his new teammate’s handle, @champbailey. White added, “Grew up watching the (future Hall of Famer) Champ Bailey now I have (a) great opportunity to play with him. Glad to have him (be) part of (the) #WhoDatNation.”
Tight end Benjamin Watson — who, like Bailey, attended the University of Georgia for college — tweeted, “Great to have another (Georgia Bulldog) on the team!”
Running back Khiry Robinson chimed in, “(Lewis) on one side and Champ Bailey on the other, Oh yeah WHODATnation it’s down this Season! WE COMING! YOOO Bless!!”
Fox 8’s Sean Fazende and ESPN’s Mike Triplett were the first to report Bailey’s deal with the Saints.