MOBILE, Ala. — For the first time in three seasons, the New Orleans Saints find themselves likely out of range of the top quarterbacks in the draft.
New Orleans sits at No. 27 in the first round of April's NFL draft, a spot likely too low for the draft's four headliners.
USC's Sam Darnold, UCLA's Josh Rosen, Wyoming's Josh Allen and Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield are all projected to come off of the board sometime in the first half of the first round as the NFL gets ready for the first major step of its offseason, the scouting combine this week in Indianapolis.
A lot can change before April, but given that quarterbacks almost always get pushed up the board because of the importance of the position and that the Saints have no second-round pick — it was traded away last April for the right to pick Alvin Kamara, a decision no New Orleans fan would fault — the Saints likely find themselves looking at this class' second tier of quarterbacks if they're going to draft a potential heir to Drew Brees.
Not that the Saints are ruling out the top guys entirely. A fall like the one that gifted Aaron Rodgers to the Green Bay Packers at No. 24 in 2005 is rare, but it can happen.
"You never know when that guy you have No. 2 comes to you at 27, or you might trade up," said New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis at the Senior Bowl. "You have to evaluate them all."
The internal gaze is now shifting outward.
Still, the likelihood is New Orleans will not have a shot at the big four. The Saints also don't seem likely to draft a quarterback at any cost; a new contract for Brees seems all but certain at this point, and the Saints like Taysom Hill, the rookie quarterback who became a special-teams sensation after he was claimed off of waivers from Green Bay.
But Brees is 39 years old, and a rookie would be signed for four years, into the legend's 40s. New Orleans has kicked the tires pretty hard on quarterbacks for the past couple of draft cycles, most notably Patrick Mahomes a year ago.
If the first round falls the way it's expected, the Saints would only draft a quarterback first if they fell in love with one of the next tier: Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph, Louisville's Lamar Jackson, Washington State's Luke Falk, Memphis's Riley Ferguson and Richmond's Kyle Lauletta.
Rudolph, Falk and Lauletta were all at the Senior Bowl, although the Oklahoma State passer was unable to play because of a foot injury.
Rudolph might come into play at the end of the first round, or into the second or third. He's 6-foot-5, 230-pounder with prototypical size and incredible production over the course of three years.
“The big question mark is playing in a spread system and being able to make sight adjustments, hot reads," Rudolph told the NFL Network at the Senior Bowl. "A lot of the things we did in our offense, people don’t know about. A lot of the downfield concepts we use are from the dropback pass family."
Falk and Lauletta, who both impressed at the Senior Bowl, have been projected to come into play at the end of the third round, where the Saints have their second pick of April's draft.
Both quarterbacks know what it's like to fly under the radar. Falk was a walk-on at Washington State; Lauletta played at Richmond when he didn't get an offer from an FBS school.
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Falk took over for an injured Connor Halliday as a freshman and became wildly productive in Washington State's Air Raid offense, passing for 14,481 yards and 119 touchdowns with 39 interceptions.
Quarterbacks in Mike Leach's offense always put up big numbers, but then Falk went to the Senior Bowl and turned in three impressive practices, precise and accurate when a lot of quarterbacks were not.
“I’ve made all the throws in my career," Falk said.
Lauletta also turned in a good week, culminating with a three-touchdown performance in the Senior Bowl itself that earned him MVP honors.
The competition at Richmond is the question mark for Lauletta, but Carson Wentz, Jimmy Garoppolo and others have made the leap from FCS to NFL starting quarterback. Lauletta believes he's helped by his background at Richmond; he played for four offensive coordinators and spent most of his time in pro-style offenses.
Lauletta does not have to make the transition spread quarterbacks make.
"You have to be able to take a snap from under center," Lauletta said. "I’ve done that; I’m comfortable doing it. I’m comfortable huddling, I’m comfortable with long play-calls, I’m comfortable learning a playbook quickly. All of that will play into my favor, I think."
A quarterback doesn't have to be taken in the first round to become a franchise passer. Rudolph, Falk and Lauletta believe they can.
"I think that I’m a franchise quarterback," Falk said. "I believe that the proof’s in the pudding. When my senior class got to Washington State, previously they were like 6-40 before we got there, and we competed for two Pac-12 North championships. ... You go back and watch my film. People are going to have questions about whether I can transition, but Jared Goff’s doing a great job, it looks like Pat Mahomes is doing a great job, so I’m going to be just fine."