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Search for the next Rodgers: Saints’ conundrum in drafting Brees’ successor

Now 38, Drew Brees passed for more than 5,000 yards last season for the fifth time in his career. Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

METAIRIE, La. — Andrew Brandt doesn't remember exactly how vocal it was, but he did "feel kind of a rumble from the coaching side of the room" before the Green Bay Packers drafted Aaron Rodgers with the 24th pick in 2005.

"Like, ‘Are we really gonna spend our top pick on someone that won't help us this year, maybe not next year, maybe not the year after, maybe never?'" said Brandt, who was a vice president with the Packers at the time, when ironman starter Brett Favre was still just 35 years old.

"But then more of the managerial side of the room was like, ‘Listen, these scouts spend seven months putting the board together. Let's trust the board. This is our highest-rated player. Yes, he plays a position where we have the most durable player in the history of the league. But this is what our board is telling us.'"

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It's a dilemma that all teams with a Hall of Fame quarterback face at some point, including the New Orleans Saints this year with 38-year-old Drew Brees: Do they find a worthy successor in the draft, or do they find someone who can help the star win another Super Bowl before he's done?

Teams such as the Arizona Cardinals with Carson Palmer, the New York Giants with Eli Manning, the Pittsburgh Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger and the Los Angeles Chargers with Philip Rivers have similar choices to make.

It's an even tougher decision this year, because most draft analysts aren't very high on the 2017 quarterback class, with question marks surrounding every prospect from Deshaun Watson, Mitchell Trubisky and Patrick Mahomes II on down.

"I think all you can say about any of these guys is that they have a chance — not that they're the answer," said ESPN analyst and former Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian, who faced the dilemma when the Colts had Peyton Manning.

Polian said the Colts might have drafted Andy Dalton in 2011 if they had known the extent of Manning's neck injury.

"But I'll say with the exception of Deshaun Watson, none of these guys [this year] are Andy Dalton," Polian said. "For a number of reasons, not ability-wise. You just don't know who they are. … None of these guys are Drew Brees coming out of college, that much I can tell you.

"So I guess the short answer is, it depends on the year."

Rodgers is the exception

The Packers' board was telling them to draft Aaron Rodgers in 2005 even if they had the most durable QB in history in Brett Favre. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Sure, the Rodgers decision feels like a no-brainer in hindsight. He is well on his way to joining Favre in the Hall of Fame, with two regular-season MVPs and a Super Bowl MVP under his belt.

While everyone exalts the Packers' transition from Favre to Rodgers, or the San Francisco 49ers' transition from Joe Montana to Steve Young, or the Colts' switch from Johnny Unitas to Bert Jones as perfect blueprints, they can't ignore the wasted draft choices.

The 49ers drafted Jim Druckenmiller in Round 1 when they had Young. The Denver Broncos drafted Tommy Maddox in Round 1 when they had John Elway. The Dallas Cowboys took Glenn Carano in Round 2 when they had Roger Staubach. The Miami Dolphins took Guy Benjamin in Round 2 when they had Bob Griese.

Check out the complete list of teams that replaced Hall of Fame quarterbacks, which also includes some first-round picks that landed somewhere in the middle, such as Mark Malone, Tommy Kramer and Richard Todd.

"There's gotta be a strategy in place to have a couple guys behind your starter that are possibilities of taking over," said NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci, who was the 49ers' coach when they drafted Druckenmiller with the 26th pick in 1997. "And if your starter's lucky enough to stay healthy, then maybe you can trade that guy."

Druckenmiller was the anti-Rodgers. He wound up being a poor style fit and lasted only two years before being traded to Miami, where he never played.

Mariucci joked about how nice it would be if teams could hit more often on fourth-round draft picks, as the Cowboys just did with Dak Prescott in 2016.

"Everybody now will say, ‘Yeah, we're gonna draft a Dak Prescott quarterback situation this year,'" Mariucci said. "Yeah, right.

"It's such a crapshoot, you know. But it's so important."

Decision a 'tricky balance of when'

The Saints themselves are 0-1 in trying to replace a legendary QB. They used a first-round pick (that would have been No. 3 overall) when they selected Dave Wilson in the 1981 supplemental draft to replace Archie Manning. Wilson won just 12 games for them in 31 starts over five years.

Even if a team lands the right guy, it might screw up the timing.

They're Not All Aaron Rodgers

Drafting the eventual successor to a future Hall of Fame QB in the first round seems logical, but it hasn't exactly panned out for teams like it did for Green Bay:

HOF QB Pick Year
Brett Favre, Packers Aaron Rodgers (24th) 2005
Kurt Warner, Cardinals Matt Leinart (10th) 2006
Steve Young, 49ers Jim Druckenmiller (26th) 1997
John Elway, Broncos Tommy Maddox (25th) 1992
Terry Bradshaw, Steelers Mark Malone (28th) 1980
Fran Tarkenton, Vikings Tommy Kramer (27th) 1977
Joe Namath, Jets Richard Todd (sixth) 1976

The New England Patriots appear to have hit on 2014 second-round draft pick Jimmy Garoppolo as a potential successor to Tom Brady, who is 39. But Garoppolo is already due to be an unrestricted free agent next year.

Last year, the Broncos lost heir apparent Brock Osweiler to free agency just when they finally needed him after he was groomed for four years behind Manning.

"It's that tricky balance of 'when.' And it's often dictated by 'who,'" said Brandt, who is now a sports analyst for ESPN and other outlets. "So it sort of goes back to scouting. If [the Saints] have identified someone they see as a future starting quarterback, I think you have to do it. Because now I think they're in a window like we were with Favre, where you see the ending.

"You don't know what year that is, but you see it. And you have to identify the future at this point."

The other popular theory is to wait until the legendary QB is gone before drafting his successor. That requires a willingness to suffer through a rebuilding year or two (or 10 or 20 if a team can't find the right guy).

The best example is Indy's transition from Manning to Andrew Luck, who was drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in 2012. Before Luck arrived, the Colts suffered through a 2-14 season because they weren't prepared when Manning was sidelined by the neck injury.

Bill Belichick, the guy in the NFL who is most recognized these days for pushing all of the right buttons, doesn't want to ever let that drop-off happen in New England, which is why the Patriots drafted Garoppolo at the end of the second round in 2014 (and Jacoby Brissett, Ryan Mallett and Kevin O'Connell in the third round over the years, to mixed results).

As an extra bonus, a team can always trade the QB if he works out, as the Patriots did with seventh-round pick Matt Cassel and could do for a megadeal if they decide to part with Garoppolo.

"If (the Saints) have identified someone they see as a future starting quarterback, I think you have to do it. Because now I think they're in a window like we were with Favre, where you see the ending."

Andrew Brandt

Former Packers GM Ron Wolf enhanced his Hall of Fame reputation with shrewd late-round draft picks and trades of QBs such as Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck and Aaron Brooks during the Favre era.

"In our organization, I don't think we would put together a team the way Indianapolis did it when they lost Manning and they go [2-14]," Belichick said when Garoppolo was drafted. "I think depth is always important. You never know when you're going to need it.

"Other people have different philosophies. I'm just saying that the contrast to that example, I don't think that's really what we're trying to do."

Not a Brees 'farewell tour'

The Saints recently signed 30-year-old backup Chase Daniel, a potential successor to Brees or at least a potential bridge to the next guy. They will keep considering top choices in this year's draft, as well, with two first-round picks and five in the first three rounds.

One other potential downside of drafting an heir apparent too early is irking the incumbent. Not only does he have a high draft pick breathing down his neck, but he loses out on a top draft choice who can help him win.

Polian said he spoke to Manning toward the end of their time together in Indianapolis about the possibility of bringing a successor on board.

When asked if Manning fought it, Polian said, "No, he understood. … I don't think he would've made it easy on the guy, but that's a different story."

Drew Brees would like to see Sean Payton and the Saints draft talent that can help the Saints win immediately. Chuck Cook/USA TODAY Sports

"I don't suppose they like it, but I think they all get it," said Mariucci, who also coached Favre early in his career with the Packers. "They all realize that they're one play away from being on the sidelines, so teams have to protect themselves.

"With Brett, though, I don't think he felt threatened by anybody."

Brees has always felt the same way. No matter where the Saints draft a quarterback, or who it is, he has insisted his approach won't change: It's his job, and it's his team. He famously took that approach early in his career when the Chargers drafted Rivers to replace him, too.

Sure, Brees admitted, if he had his preference, he would like the Saints to use their top picks on players who can help him win now.

"If I'm gonna start and that quarterback sits, well, that's not helping our team right now. So I want somebody that's gonna help our team right now," Brees said, although he acknowledged he appreciates the long-term decisions the team needs to make.

"Listen, when I leave here I want this organization to be successful, whenever that is. So I want them to be prepared for that. They need to be thinking about that.

"But I don't want to make it seem like this is my farewell tour."

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