Saints' picks take roads less traveled

METAIRIE, La. -- One of the most surprising things about the New Orleans Saints' draft class was that I had actually heard of every school the players came from.

All six picks came from major colleges. No Bloomsburgs, Towsons, Reginas or Tarleton States among the bunch.

However, when I mentioned that to coach Sean Payton, he cracked, “Well, you need to go back and track Tavon [Rooks’] junior colleges, and maybe we got you there. He’s been to three.”

Sure enough, the Saints’ sixth-round offensive tackle eventually wound up at Kansas State. But Rooks said because he wasn’t highly recruited out of high school, he first went to a community college near his hometown in Maryland, then the College of the Canyons in California and Navarro Junior College in Texas.

And Rooks wasn’t the only one. Second-round draft choice Stanley Jean-Baptiste ended up at Nebraska. But he first went through North Carolina Tech Prep and Fort Scott Community College in Kansas because of academic issues. And fourth-round linebacker Khairi Fortt started out at Penn State before transferring to Cal after the Jerry Sandusky scandal that allowed Nittany Lions players to switch schools.

“I took it all in as a learning experience; life doesn’t go as planned,” Fortt said. “I just took it as adversity, just a lesson to me growing up as a man. ... I don’t regret it. I thought it was a learning tool for me. It actually helped me a lot, going from a 4-3 defense and learning that in the Big Ten, hard hitting, and going to the Pac-12, more of a finesse game. I thought that was good.”

Fortt also experienced a common hurdle that many of the Saints’ draft picks faced – injury.

Fortt missed the 2012 season at Cal after having surgery to repair an old knee injury from high school. He described it as a partially dislocated kneecap that doctors eventually decided to stabilize with another tendon to keep it from popping out.

Both of the Saints’ fifth-round choices, Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri and Florida linebacker Ronald Powell, tore ACLs while they were in college – Powell in 2012 and Sunseri last October.

Powell’s injury required two surgeries to be repaired after a ligament from a cadaver didn’t work out the first time. But he bounced back and played well last season.

Sunseri was able to perform at Alabama’s pro day last month and said he has been cleared to participate in all offseason work, including OTAs and minicamp.

A bit surprisingly, all three of those players – Fortt, Sunseri and Powell – decided to declare for the draft early instead of staying in college for one more year to try to improve their draft stock.

“You know, I just feel like I’m ready to make that next step,” said Sunseri, whose father Sal is a longtime college and NFL assistant coach, currently at Florida State. “It’s not about the money for me, it’s not about being a first-round draft pick, it’s about the love of the game and fulfilling a dream.”

Powell, who entered Florida as the No. 1-rated high school player in the country according to ESPNU, gave a similar answer after his college career didn’t go as planned.

“I thought it was time. I’ve been waiting for this my whole life,” Powell said. “My ultimate goal was to get to the next level. Football is not just a game to me, it is a lifestyle. Being able to have an opportunity to take the next step, I thought that was the best decision for me. So I made that decision. I feel like God has his plans always.”