METAIRIE, La. (AP) — The New Orleans Saints targeted defensive prospects with their first three picks of the final day of the NFL draft, starting with California outside linebacker Khairi Fortt in the fourth round.
In the fifth round, the Saints added a pair of standouts from the Southeastern Conference: Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri and Florida outside linebacker Ronald Powell.
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 started all nine games in which he played as a fourth-year junior for Cal last season, lining up at weak-side linebacker. Despite missing three games with a biceps injury, he was a national semifinalist for the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top linebacker, after recording 64 tackles, including 3 ½ tackles for losses.
Although Cal’s base defense was a 4-3, Fortt said the scheme had enough variability that he often played roles similar to a weak-side outside linebacker in a 3-4, as he’d be expected to do under Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
Fortt noted that during his pre-draft interview with Ryan, most questions dealt not with his personal background, but his knowledge of schemes and positional responsibilities.
“I feel like I’ll be good at playing in a 3-4 defense and I’ll learn quickly, and there’s not much of a change,” Fortt said.
At the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, he tied for the top score among linebackers in the bench press with 30 repetitions of 225 pounds. His 40-yard dash time of 4.7 seconds tied for 11th at his position.
Those results and the way he played last season indicated he’d overcome knee problems which began with a dislocated knee cap in ninth grade and lingered until he had surgery in 2012, when he sat out the season.
“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 … and now I’m fine.”
Fortt began his college career at Penn State, transferring after the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
“Life doesn’t go as planned,” Fortt said. “I picked Penn State. Obviously it didn’t work out for me like I wanted it to, so I had to pick a different option. I don’t regret it. I thought it was a learning tool.”
The 6-foot, 210-pound Sunseri had more recent surgery, missing Alabama’s last six games last season after tearing a knee ligament. But he participated in Alabama’s Pro Day last month and said he’s been cleared for rookie camp. He arrives in the same offseason that the Saints released another former Alabama strong safety, Roman Harper.
Sunseri joked that he expects to “catch a little bit of grief” from Louisiana football fans who are partial to LSU, but added, “hopefully I can win them over whenever I hit a couple people.”
Sunseri, whose father, Sal, is Tennessee’s defensive coordinator, 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. And my dream is to play in a professional organization and you know what? The Saints are the perfect one.”
Powell, who is 6-3, 237, was heavily scouted out of high school, but his career at Florida was marred by reconstructive knee surgery he had to have twice because of a setback during his rehabilitation.
Last season, he played in 12 games at both strong-side outside linebacker and defensive end. He was credited with four sacks and eight QB hurries. He said he still has a lot to prove after not being drafted until the end of the fifth round, and suspects that the Saints will offer him an environment and scheme in which he can finally fulfill his potential.
“I feel like I’m going to be a great fit for them,” Powell said. “I like the tenacity they (have). I’m a passionate guy when it comes to this game and I like the sort of defensive mindset that they have in New Orleans.”
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.
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