Could the Saints look for their quarterback of the future in this draft?

Before we get into the main thrust of this week’s article, let’s look at the biggest piece of news for the Saints from the week. The Bears declined to match the offer sheet to Cameron Meredith, so the wide receiver is now a Saint. As discussed last week, Meredith’s size and speed combination could make him an ideal outside receiver for the team– assuming he recovers properly from his ACL and MCL tear last preseason. Personally, I’m excited; the upside here is terrific, and if Meredith recovers he could be one of the steals of the offseason. Onward: The 2018 NFL Draft is considered to be one of the most quarterback-rich pools of talent in a long time. Five quarterbacks and possibly six are expected to go in the first round this year, the kind of deep crop of talent that only comes around rarely. (The only time six quarterbacks have been drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft is 1983; the only other time even five quarterbacks were drafted in the first round is 1999.) Drew Brees is 39, and the next couple of quarterback classes don’t project to be particularly deep in talent; if the Saints remain as competitive as they were in 2017, they won’t have the chance to draft high enough to pick one anyway. Then again, there’s a chance they won’t have the chance to pick one of these, either. But nonetheless, we’ll take a look at the six top quarterbacks and the likelihood the Saints take one of them, plus one intriguing developmental prospect the Saints may be able to land with their third-round pick. NOT HAPPENING Sam Darnold, USC. Darnold is currently the favorite to be picked #1 overall, though the gap is closing among oddsmakers as rumors grow that the Browns are also interested in Josh Allen. Darnold became the early favorite for this selection all the way back in 2016, when he took over USC’s starting job as a redshirt freshman after a 1-3 start, ripping off a nine-game winning streak which included a Rose Bowl win over then-#5 Penn State. Darnold’s efficiency numbers took a step back in 2017, but he didn’t do anything to damage his chances of being the #1 pick. If the Browns go with Allen, Darnold will almost certainly be the selection at #2, so the chances of the Saints landing him are essentially nonexistent. Josh Allen, Wyoming. Well, we have to talk about him. Allen is this year’s beneficiary of “looking like a prototype QB.” He only completed 56% of his passes last year, leading one of the worst offenses in FBS; he played in the Mountain West conference and was abysmal when he played against Power-5 teams; and Wyoming went 8-5, not even winning the conference. Not a great record for a supposed top NFL prospect. But since he is the guy who most obviously looks like a top quarterback prospect, with his 6’5″, athletic frame and giant arm, excuses are made over and over for him. Mel Kiper discussing Allen’s low completion percentage: “Stats are for losers. The guy’s a winner.” Meanwhile, Kiper cites Lamar Jackson, who completed 59% of his passes last year, as “too inaccurate” for the NFL. Never mind that Jackson and Allen’s teams finished with the same record, Jackson put up better numbers against much tougher competition, or that Jackson finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2017 and won it in 2016. (Another one of those traits that makes Allen “look like a quarterback”: White skin.) I don’t know how much of the excuse-making for Allen is conscious bias, how much of it is unconscious bias, and how much of it is the arrogance of scouts and coaches who believe that they can fix everything wrong with him and want to be remembered as they guys who do that. In any case, it all adds up to a player who won’t be available for the Saints to select. (Considering his closest comparisons in physical profile and college production are 2011 first-round busts Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert, this is a good thing.) Josh Rosen, UCLA. Rosen battled his share of injuries at UCLA, as well as, in my opinion, poor coaching. (Jim L. Mora is not the coach his father was.) Rosen didn’t always have the surrounding talent needed to succeed, and was often outmatched as a result, but still showed tremendous pocket presence, football intelligence, and possibly the best mid-range accuracy in this class. Rosen would ordinarily be a top prospect, but the “football guys” are already starting to pick him apart, for traits like “being intelligent enough to ask questions and have interests outside of football.” (Even Mora himself said he thought Darnold would be a better fit for Cleveland at #1. Way to stick up for your players, coach!) All that said, Rosen is far too talented to slide too far. Rumors suggest he might be a surprise slider on draft day, but the last time teams let a talented California kid slide at QB because they didn’t like his personality, twenty-three teams passed on Aaron Rodgers. He’d be a steal for the Saints, but even if the rumors are true, it’s hard to imagine him landing outside the top five picks or so. SLIM BUT NOT IMPOSSIBLE Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma. Mayfield was a popular early projection to the Saints, in large part due to his height (6’0⅝”). Between the NFL’s bias against short quarterbacks and the success Sean Payton and company have had with Drew Brees, Mayfield seemed like both a fit as the quarterback of the future and someone with a chance to slide to the Saints’ pick. As draft season has rolled on, though, Mayfield’s sheer productivity and competitiveness, combined with the number of teams that have needs at quarterback, have caused teams to consider him worthy of a high selection as well. He might go as high as #3 to the Jets, and, like Rosen, I’d be surprised if he was still on the board outside the top half-dozen or so selections. Lamar Jackson, Louisville. The Saints took a visit with Jackson, so they may believe they have a real chance to land him. I love Jackson’s game, personally. He’s a highly productive runner, but he’s also an accomplished pocket passer capable of reading the field and going through his progressions, only running on designed plays or when there’s no other option. He’s not quite as accurate as I’d like him to be, a problem most often caused when he doesn’t properly reset his base when throwing. Even so, his accuracy concerns are overstated (due to a substantial number of drops by his receivers), and his running ability is so prolific that he’ll open up defenses to make the job of passing much easier. (And that running ability can’t be overstated enough: He was one of college football’s most productive runners– not running quarterbacks, runners— for his three-year career. He finished with more rushing yards, a higher yards per carry, and more rushing touchdowns than Saquon Barkley, widely projected as a top-5 pick and a potential generational prospect at running back.) Of course, Jackson’s stock has been in question for the laziest of reasons, most of which are superficial or consider his rushing ability a negative. Even so, I think teams’ desperation for quarterbacks and Jackson’s obvious talent will win out eventually. I expect him to go sometime in the first half of the first round. If he doesn’t, the Saints should consider trading up for him as he slides, and if he’s somehow available at pick #27, he should surely be their selection. FIRST ROUND POSSIBILITY Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State. Rudolph has been a difficult evaluation for me personally. He doesn’t have overwhelming physical talent, but often displays tremendous touch and accuracy on deep passes– along with the occasional baffling decision. But he also had two highly regarded wide receivers to throw to, including James Washington, the 2017 Biletnikoff Award winner for college football’s best wide receiver (and another consideration for the Saints to select at #27). In a highly productive offense such as this, with a QB and WR both regarded as potential first-rounders, I struggle with the chicken-and-the-egg question: Does the quarterback make the wide receiver productive, or does the wide receiver make the quarterback productive? Specifically in this case: Does Rudolph have preternatural accuracy on deep ball placement, or does Washington have preternatural skill at tracking deep baIls in the air? I see things to like in both, but I also have questions about both, so I really have no idea what the answer is here. Ordinarily I might like Rudolph in the middle of the second round, but the Saints don’t have a second-round pick, and the rush for quarterbacks means they would probably have to stay put and take him if they want him. On balance, I lean against taking Rudolph #27 if I feel more confident about a player at another position. But then, they might not even have the chance: The Patriots are reportedly interested in Rudolph as well, and they now own the #23 selection in the draft, having acquired it from the Rams after trading former Saint Brandin Cooks. (This surely marks the first time a receiver as young as Cooks has been traded for first-round picks in consecutive offseasons after putting up 1,000-yard campaigns in consecutive seasons, and is probably the first time even any two of those four or so things have happened.) THE SLEEPER Kyle Lauletta, Richmond. Lauletta was a three-year starter at FCS-level Richmond, and has become a popular name as a sleeper prospect. He was a productive starter there running a pro-style offense, which gave him experience with some of the necessary points of the NFL game, such as read progression and executing play action. He’ll need some work when it comes to tightening some of his mechanics and getting rid of the ball rather than relying on his athleticism to make a play– something he could get away with at Richmond, but probably won’t in the NFL– but there’s potentially a viable starter there in a year or two with some work. Other possible third- or fourth-round developmental prospects include Washington State’s Luke Falk and Western Kentucky’s Mike White. All that said, the Saints may be shy on taking a small-school developmental project in the middle rounds, as 2015 third-rounder Garrett Grayson ended up being a complete bust. (I didn’t like the pick anyway: I preferred Brett Hundley, who went in the fifth round to the Packers, and while he didn’t really perform when called to start in 2017, he was at least good enough to stay on the roster, which Grayson wasn’t. Seventh-rounder Trevor Siemian also ended up being a periodic starter for the Denver Broncos over the last few years.) Next time: Our last column before the draft will feature a complete seven-round mock for the Saints– and maybe two.