METAIRIE, La. -- Quarterback is the wild card that will inject plenty of drama into the New Orleans Saints' draft on Thursday night, with two chances to take the plunge for Drew Brees' successor at pick No. 11 and No. 32.
I wound up selecting Deshaun Watson for the Saints at No. 32 in our ESPN NFL Nation mock draft on Tuesday night since he's too special to fall to Day 2. But I wasn't planning to target a quarterback in that spot (and I don't expect Watson to be there in the real thing).
But I'm sticking with two picks in my final mock projections for the Saints that won't necessarily rock the NFL on Thursday night. They'll fill their two biggest needs at edge rusher and cornerback with Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett and LSU cornerback Tre'Davious White.
Here are my "clouds" of best bets at each pick, to borrow the term the Saints' use for their group of projected targets.
1. Tennessee DE Derek Barnett: Draft analysts are a bit mixed on whether Barnett is worthy of a pick this high since he doesn't possess elite athletic traits, but the Saints like their defensive ends to be a bit bigger (which Barnett is at 6-foot-3, 259 pounds). He has almost every other intangible going for him, starting with proven experience as a three-year starter at Tennessee who broke Reggie White's school record with 33 career sacks. Barnett is lauded for things like his instincts, hand movement and character (which was on display in his cover letter to NFL teams in The Players' Tribune on Wednesday). Last but not least, this is New Orleans' No. 1 need. Missouri DE Charles Harris and Michigan DE Taco Charlton could also vault into this spot as a result.
2. Temple LB Haason Reddick or Alabama LB Reuben Foster: Sean Payton said it's no secret the Saints want to address their defense during this draft (a fact so obvious that there's no reason to accuse him of subterfuge). If one or both of these guys falls to 11, they could be the highest-rated defensive player on the board. They both come with question marks: Foster has to shed some off-field character concerns; Reddick will likely have to change positions from a pass-rushing DE at Temple to linebacker in the NFL. But they're two standout athletes with disruptive ability.
3. Alabama CB Marlon Humphrey: Most draft analysts don't have Humphrey rated this high, but it doesn't look like he'll fall all the way to No. 32 -- especially if teams shy away from Ohio State's Gareon Conley in Round 1. So if the Saints truly covet Humphrey, they might have to pounce on him here. A physical corner at 6-0, 197, Humphrey was a two-year starter with five career interceptions and three forced fumbles.
Wild card: Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey: The Saints won't force themselves to go defense with this pick, but McCaffrey is the only offensive player that wouldn't shock me at this spot. He's a versatile runner-receiver. Payton told The MMQB he has a "crystal clear" vision for McCaffrey in a joker role like Darren Sproles and Reggie Bush. I doubt McCaffrey is available at this point anyway, though. More likely, the Saints will have to figure out how to defend him twice a year with the Carolina Panthers.
1. LSU CB Tre'Davious White: I'm sticking with White here, even though I don't see his name in as many Round 1 mocks as I did a few weeks ago. Cornerback is the other of New Orleans' two "musts" in the draft, along with edge rusher. As I said, I don't expect Humphrey to fall this far (maybe the Saints would consider trading up to get him?). I also don't think Washington cornerback Kevin King will fall to 32. But I think White is worthy of this pick after a standout career as a four-year starter at LSU with six career interceptions and polished man-coverage skills.
2. Wisconsin OLB T.J. Watt or Kansas State DE Jordan Willis: Even if the Saints do land Barnett at No. 11, another edge rusher could be in play at the end of the round. Watt projects more as a 3-4 outside linebacker. But the Saints, like most teams, run a multiple scheme that could make room for either one of these guys as rotational pass rushers.
3. Quarterback: The QB intrigue will spice up the final pick in Round 1. But the Saints would really have to love a prospect to take him this high, since Brees is still thriving at age 38. I don't see that happening, since I don't expect Watson, Trubisky or Mahomes to fall this far.
Wild card: Offensive tackle. This would be the least dramatic pick New Orleans could make to end the night, but right tackle is a need with starter Zach Strief being 33 years old. And there's a good chance that someone from the group of Alabama's Cam Robinson, Utah's Garett Bolles or Wisconsin's Ryan Ramczyk will be available.