New Orleans Saints among QB mysteries in unpredictable NFL draft

METAIRIE, La. – Has there ever been less consensus on where the top two quarterback prospects will land in the NFL draft?

Depending on your mock draft of choice, Liberty’s Malik Willis and Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett are being projected anywhere from No. 2 to No. 20. And the New Orleans Saints are squarely in the middle of the mystery with picks 16 and 19.

Signing quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Andy Dalton in free agency suggest they might be content to go the veteran route. But then their intriguing trade for an extra first-round pick opened up a world of possibilities.

Not only do they have the collateral to move up in this year’s draft if they choose, but they almost certainly ruled out the possibility of drafting a top quarterback in 2023 by trading away next year’s first-rounder.

Even former coach Sean Payton acknowledged that New Orleans’ trade heightened the possibility of a quarterback trade -- though he insisted he has no insider knowledge.

“Without any information, I'm going to say when a trade like that happens it's either to gain picks, I think like what they're doing, or it's to go further north for a quarterback. We have to think that way,” Payton said while participating in a Zurich Classic charity event this week. “I wouldn't be surprised to see those two packaged.”

Of course, New Orleans could also package those picks to trade up for an offensive tackle or wide receiver instead.

And it remains possible the Saints could stay put and draft a quarterback at 16, 19, or 49 now that they have enough capital to think both short term and long term.

Here is a look at which quarterbacks they could target in each scenario:

If they trade up

It’s possible Willis or Pickett could fall. But the Saints would have to trade up to be absolutely certain they can get their top choice -- perhaps all the way into the top five ahead of two division rivals: the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons.

“I don’t think they made that trade with the intention of moving up for a quarterback or even using one of those two on a quarterback,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay speculated -- but he acknowledged it’s almost impossible to pin down each team’s quarterback plans.

“What’s wild about this year’s class -- more so than any previous year that I can remember -- is the difference of opinions when I get off the phone with one guy in the league versus the next guy. And I’m not just talking about scouts, I’m talking general managers, guys who are making the decisions.

“I have one team saying they like [Ole Miss’] Matt Corral as the No. 1 quarterback. I’ve had two or three teams say that they like [Cincinnati’s Desmond] Ridder more. I’ve had some teams say that they like Malik Willis most, and then I’ve had some teams say that he’s the fourth-best quarterback in this class. Pickett is usually either 1 or 2.

“The only thing that’s kind of consistent is that everyone -- myself included -- agrees that they’re more mid to late first-round prospects.”

ESPN draft analyst Jordan Reid agreed with McShay that all of this year’s prospects would rank behind the top five in last year’s class. But Reid has consistently predicted Willis and Pickett will go higher than most projections because “there’s always that ‘quarterback tax’ I like to call it.”

Reid has Willis No. 1 on his board. And most analysts agree Willis has the highest potential ceiling.

Meanwhile, analysts Greg Cosell and Matt Bowen agreed on ESPN’s NFL Matchup that Pickett is the most poised to step into an NFL offense right away. And Bowen’s description sounded like one that fits New Orleans’ past tendencies under Payton and remaining offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr.

“You talk about an offense he fits in the National Football League, it’s one built on timing and rhythm throws, with West Coast elements,” said Bowen, who recently identified what each top prospect does best.

If they stay put

If the Saints don’t like Willis or Pickett enough to trade up, they might also pass on both at 16 and 19. But ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said Pickett would be a “good choice at that particular point” and could be in a good position to succeed in New Orleans’ domed stadium and the NFC in general.

Another wild-card possibility is the Saints wanted the extra first-round pick because they like Corral or Ridder and wanted to have the best of both worlds (one developmental quarterback and one first-rounder that helps immediately at another position).

“If they stand pat at 16 or 19, it could be for Desmond Ridder,” Reid said. “There’s a lot of steam right now that the Pittsburgh Steelers like him, sitting behind the Saints at No. 20.”

If they wait until Day 2

If quarterbacks fall in Round 1, that could produce value in Round 2. Reid said he would be comfortable drafting Ridder, Corral and North Carolina’s Sam Howell in Round 2 in any given year -- not just because of the 2022 inflation.

Reid paired the Saints with Howell when he and ESPN analyst Matt Miller did a quarterback-only mock draft – while Miller sent Nevada’s Carson Strong to New Orleans in Round 3.

“I think 49 would probably be the most likely spot (if the Saints draft a quarterback),” McShay said.

But after those top five prospects, McShay said he doesn’t believe any other quarterback “has a chance to be anything more than a good backup.”

If they pass entirely

It’s not like New Orleans has to force a quarterback pick. Winston still has enticing upside, which he showed before tearing his ACL in Week 8 last season. Dalton is as accomplished as any backup in the league. Taysom Hill is expected to move into more of a tight end role, but he could always slide back to quarterback if injuries demand. And the Saints can continue to develop last year’s fourth-round pick, Ian Book.

Meanwhile, they could use those early picks for an offensive tackle and/or a wide receiver to give Winston an even better chance to thrive.