NFL draft: Saints sought depth, upside on final day

The New Orleans Saints used a fifth-round draft pick Saturday on former Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri. (File, Mark Almond/
The New Orleans Saints used a fifth-round draft pick Saturday on former Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri. (File, Mark Almond/

METAIRIE, Louisiana (AP) — Khairi Fortt, Vinnie Sunseri and Ronald Powell all had major injuries in college, likely hurting their chances of climbing any higher on NFL draft boards than they did.

Still, all three defensive players gave the New Orleans Saints the impression that they had a lot of upside.

“We don’t have a set formula for that,” Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said as the draft wound down Saturday. “Sometimes we’re weighing the injury against where the player would be drafted if not for the injury — if we think there’s a great value there.”

The Saints took Fortt, a linebacker out of California, in the fourth round, then used a pair of fifth-round picks on Sunseri, a safety from Alabama, and Powell, an outside linebacker from Florida.

New Orleans then added an offensive lineman in the sixth round, picking 6-foot-5, 280-pound Kansas State tackle Tavon Rooks.

The 6-2, 248-pound Fortt began his college career at Penn State when the program was engulfed in Jerry Sandusky scandal, prompting him to transfer. Knee surgery then sidelined him for all of 2012.

“Life doesn’t go as planned,” Fortt said. “I don’t regret it. I thought it was a learning tool.”

He started nine games as a junior last season at weak-side linebacker. Despite missing three games with a biceps injury, he was a semifinalist for the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top linebacker, after recording 64 tackles, including 3½ tackles for losses.

Fortt said the variability of Cal’s 4-3 scheme allowed him to play roles similar to a weak-side middle linebacker in a 3-4, as he’ll be expected to do in New Orleans.

“I feel like I’ll be good at playing in a 3-4 defense and I’ll learn quickly,” Fortt said.

Fortt’s 30 bench press repetitions of 225 pounds tied for the most of any linebacker at the NFL scouting combine. His 40-yard dash time of 4.7 seconds tied for 11th at his position.

Those results and his play last season indicated he’d overcome knee problems which began with a dislocated knee cap in ninth grade and lingered until his 2012 surgery.

“I don’t feel like I was really injury prone,” Fortt said. “Doctors thought (his kneecap) was a little loose, so they tightened it down. … Now I’m fine.”

“It’s not about the money for me. … It’s about the love of the game and fulfilling a dream.” — Vinnie Sunseri

The 6-foot, 210-pound Sunseri missed Alabama’s last six games last season after tearing a knee ligament. But he participated in Alabama’s pro day last month and is cleared for Saints rookie camp next weekend.

Sunseri said he expects some grief from Louisiana fans partial to LSU, but added, “hopefully I can win them over whenever I hit a couple people.”

Sunseri, whose father, Sal, is a defensive coach at Florida State, left school a year early, despite projections that he’d be picked no higher than the fourth round.

“I just feel like I’m ready,” Sunseri said. “It’s not about the money for me. … It’s about the love of the game and fulfilling a dream.”

Coach Sean Payton said the Saints were impressed by the trust Alabama coach Nick Saban placed in Sunseri to make defensive calls, as well as Sunseri’s special teams play.

Powell, who is 6-3, 237, was heavily scouted out of high school, but his career at Florida was interrupted by reconstructive knee surgery he had to have twice because of a setback during his rehabilitation.

Last season, he played in 12 games at outside linebacker and defensive end, registering four sacks and eight QB hurries. In New Orleans, he’ll work as a pass-rushing outside linebacker.

“I feel like I’m going to be a great fit for them,” Powell said. “I’m a passionate guy when it comes to this game and I like the sort of defensive mindset that they have.”

Payton said it’s clear Powell will arrive motivated to prove he can live up to the potential seen in him several years ago.

“He is hungry. He’s one of those guys where it’s all business,” Payton said. “It’s very important to him.”

Earlier in the draft, the Saints took Oregon receiver Brandin Cooks after trading their 27th overall pick and third-round pick to Arizona for the Cardinals’ 20th overall choice. New Orleans took Nebraska cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste in the second round.

The Saints did not, however, draft anyone to compete for the starting center spot vacated when Brian de la Puente left in free agency.

“It wasn’t a deep draft at that position,” Payton said. “We had a handful of centers on the board. It really never matched.”