The road to the NFL is rarely a straight one.
Ronald Powell was the nation’s No. 1 high school recruit. Tavon Rooks attended three junior colleges.
Khairi Fortt was affected by the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State and started only 10 games in his college career. Vinnie Sunseri defied conventional wisdom and left school early.
And yet they all wound up as the third-day draft picks of the Saints on Saturday with, presumably, an equal opportunity to make the 53-man roster.
“All I need is a chance,” said Sunseri, a safety from Alabama whom the Saints took in the fifth round. “That’s all any of us need: the chance to prove we’re worthy.”
The four Saturday draftees join first-round pick wide receiver Brandin Cooks of Oregon State and second-round cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste of Nebraska for conditioning drills as early as Monday. Then, along with the free agents signed in the next few days, they’ll take part in the team’s rookie minicamp next weekend.
“What comes into play today is whether these guys have the traits we’re looking for,” Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis said. “Character traits, intelligence traits, physical traits or a special skill.”
All of those factors came into play with Saturday’s selections.
Powell, an outside linebacker from Florida whom the Saints took in the fourth round, said he expected to be a first-rounder coming out of high school but that adversity has made him a more determined player.
“I’ve been watching (draft coverage) the past couple of days, and I am using it all for motivation,” he said. “I wasn’t a first-round pick, so I’ve got to prove myself because my expectation for myself is definitely greater than anybody out there.”
Powell seemed to be on the road to living up to his advanced billing through his first two seasons, but he suffered a torn ACL in spring drills in 2012 and missed the season after undergoing two surgeries.
He returned last season and actually was one of the bright spots in a dismal 4-8 year for the Gators. But because of other injuries, Powell had to shuttle between several positions and found his draft stock lowered.
Still, he chose to forego his final season of eligibility.
“I thought it was time,” he said. “My ultimate goal was to get to the next level. Football is not just a game to me; it’s a lifestyle.”
Unlike Powell, Rooks, an offensive tackle from Kansas State whom the Saints picked in the sixth round, had little if any expectations coming out of Woodlawn High School in Randallstown, Maryland.
That’s why he journeyed from Catonsville (Maryland) Community College to College of Canyons in California to Navarro (Texas) Junior College before signing with the Wildcats.
There, even though he was a two-year starter, Rooks (6-5, 280) wasn’t even considered the best tackle on his team — that being Karr graduate Cornelius Lucas, who went undrafted.
That’s why, instead of watching the draft Saturday, Rooks was in South Dakota with his girlfriend celebrating his 24th birthday.
And it’s why, when Saints coach Sean Payton called him during the fifth round, telling him the team was planning on drafting him, Rooks said he initially thought he was being pranked.
“I was like ‘Coach Payton?’ ” Rooks said. “Naw, that’s not him. And he told me they were thinking about drafting me, but I still didn’t get my hopes up. But it’s a wonderful, wonderful feeling.”
Fortt (6-2, 240), an outside linebacker whom the Saints took in the fourth round, was one of the Penn State players who chose to transfer after the NCAA hit the school with sanctions in 2012, opting for Cal. But he had to undergo knee surgery shortly after arriving and missed the season.
Coming back in 2013, Fortt played nine games before suffering a season-ending bicep injury. But the Saints had enough interest to make him one of the players they interviewed at the combine.
“Most of the other teams asked me about transferring and stuff,” he said. “But the Saints drew up 15 plays, had me write them down, which was mind-boggling, and were asking me some pretty wild questions while I was doing it. But even then, I didn’t have a clue they would take me. I guess I must have done something to impress them.”
Sunseri, the son of former LSU assistant and current Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, suffered a torn ACL six games into last season. But he still chose to enter the draft rather then come back for his final year of eligibility, and the Saints took him in the fifth round.
“I felt like I was ready,” he said. “To me, it wasn’t about becoming a first-round draft pick. It’s about fulfilling my dream of playing professional football.”
Of course, it helped that the team drafting him was the Saints.
“I can’t imagine being with any other team,” he said. “It’s been a wild ride.”