Entering the final day of the 2014 NFL Draft, the New Orleans Saints, armed with three selections between rounds 4 and 5, placed their focus on defense as they selected Linebackers Khairi Fortt and Ronald Powell, along with Safety Vinnie Sunseri.
The players join former Nebraska Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who the Saints selected in round 2, as prospects the team hopes can provide talent and adequate depth to a defense whose arrow remains pointed up heading into the new season.
While these three players all bring unique skills and traits to the table, all come with recent injury red flags.
Fortt, a 6-2 242 Linebacker,has been plagued by knee injuries since his high school days in Connecticut. Following a standout prep career at Stamford High School, he initially signed for Penn State, but wound up transferring out west in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal which saw the Nittany Lions placed under strict sanctions by the NCAA. Fortt spent his first season in Berkeley rehabbing an injury suffered during the previous year at Penn State. He went on to start 9 games in 2013 for the Bears as an outside 'backer, posting 64 tackles-3.5 for loss- and 0.5 sacks. During the season, he was named as a semifinalist for the Butkus Award. Fortt's versatility to play any Linebacker spot is appealing, as is his strength and wing span. Should his knee hold up, Fortt figures to contribute on special teams and could take advantage of his hip flexibility to carve out a role in Rob Ryan's subpackages on passing downs.
Sunseri comes from a winning program in Alabama, and returns to a state where he spent part of his childhood when his father, Sal, was an assistant coach at LSU. Like Fortt, Sunseri should be able to find a role on special teams, covering punts and kickoffs. He demonstrated a knack for being involved on momentum-swinging plays and displayed good ball skills, often plucking deflected passes out of the air and demonstrating good field awareness from his spot in 'Bama's secondary. Seemingly always in on the big play, Sunseri got his senior season off to a strong start before suffering a torn ACL in mid-October. He could find himself competing with former Toronto Argonaut standout Safety Marcus Ball for a place on the team's final roster. If he can prove to be over his knee issues, Sunseri's vision, ball skills and experience playing in multiple coverages under Nick Saban at the college level should assist his chances of making the team. Ronald Powell was the nations #1 Defensive End prospect coming out of high school.
Ronald Powell was once the nation's top defensive prep prospect. However, injuries have also taken their toll on the former Florida Gator, who missed all of 2012 after injuring his knee twice within the span of a year. Powell missed an additional game in 2013 after suffering an ankle injury which hampered his final season in Gainesville. Standing at 6-3 237, Powell cuts the figure of a capable, stout presence in the front seven, but his durability will be an issue. Should he prove to be fully fit, the former Gator could develop as an outside Linebacker in Ryan's scheme, capable of bringing pressure of the edge from a stand-up position, as well as containment in the run game. Having played a hybrid Linebacker/Defensive End role at Florida, he has plenty of experience in engaging with some of the SEC's top offensive line prospects over the last three years.
The Saints could always choose to essentially stash one or more of these players on IR, should any lingering health issues prevent them from contributing or competing over the summer. The team is well aware of there medical history, but must believe in each player's individual skill to have invested a pick in them.
As it stands, the Saints have one more pick(202nd overall) in their arsenal heading into the 6th round this afternoon. The team could look to address the Center position, or could keep their focus on defense by adding another body up front. For now, the Saints have met two big needs in the first two rounds, and are now attempting to find value in the later rounds by taking chances on talented, but injury-hit prospects.
Having hit big in the undrafted free agent pool in years past, the chance to add more talent exists beyond the team's final pick. It will certainly be interesting to see what the Saints decide to do in round 6. Stay tuned.