After losing starting safety Johnathan Cyprien to a season ending ACL injury last week, the Titans quickly moved to add former Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro to the roster. It’s extremely rare for a player of Vaccaro’s talent to be available via free agency in August, but an unusually soft market for safeties played to Tennessee’s advantage.
The 15th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft is likely to slot in as a starter at safety across from First-Team All-Pro Kevin Byard. That makes five former first round picks that could end up in the starting lineup for the Titans defense this fall — Vaccaro, Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan, Adoree Jackson, and Rashaan Evans.
You never want to lose a starter to a long term injury, but if it’s going to happen, this is pretty good timing. The team gets a quality player and they have most of camp and preseason to get Vaccaro up to speed in the new defense. So what are the Titans getting in their new safety?
After a successful college career at Texas which culminated with a First-Team All-American selection as a senior, Vaccaro was a hot commodity in the 2013 draft. He tested well at the combine, excelling in short area quickness and explosiveness relative to his peers at safety.
His size at 6’-0” and 214 pounds with 32 3/4” arms were major pluses as well. Vaccaro was largely pegged as a mid-first round pick heading in to the draft and that’s where he landed with the Saints at 15 as the first safety off the board, 3 spots ahead of Eric Reid and 18 picks ahead of the injured Titan he’s replacing. The Titans reportedly hosted Vaccaro on a private visit late in the draft process that year before selecting Chance Warmack with the 10th overall pick.
Vaccaro was a hit right away in New Orleans as his 2013 performance put him in the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation — Sheldon Richardson was the eventual winner — and ultimately earned him a spot on the all-rookie team. He racked up 79 total tackles, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble, and 7 pass breakups while starting 14 games, but a fractured ankle put him on IR for the final 2 games of the regular season. The Saints defense jumped from 31st in total points allowed the previous season to 4th during Vaccaro’s rookie year.
Vaccaro’s second season in New Orleans was far less successful. After spending most of the offseason rehabbing his broken ankle, he struggled with a hamstring injury early in the year and then eventually was shut down due to a significant quad injury that he had been playing through late in the season. In the midst of all the injuries, Vaccaro was also briefly benched by the team, explaining to Katherine Terrell of the Times Picayune that the change in role was due to some struggles with run fits in Rob Ryan’s defense.
“This whole role thing is misguided,” Vaccaro said. “I wasn’t fitting the run right, so they took me out, I came back in and got everything together and now I’m back in. I missed 10 reps this year. It was a deal where they said, ‘You need to get better at this,’ I got better, and within a game I was back out there. It had nothing to do with injuries or anything.”
The Saints defense as a whole struggled that season, finishing 28th in points allowed.
In 2015, Vaccaro’s third season as a pro, he bounced back. Not only did Vaccaro start all 16 games for the Saints, but he barely left the field, playing 99.7% of New Orleans’ defensive snaps. He recorded a career high 104 total tackles while leading the team in solo stops with 71. He also contributed 5 pass breakups, 3 sacks, and a forced fumble. Two of those sacks came against Blake Bortles, something the Titans would love him to repeat in 2018.
However, Vaccaro was a bright spot on a bad Saints defense that year that finished dead last in points allowed. Rob Ryan was relieved of his duties as defensive coordinator after a terrible 47-14 loss against Washington and replaced with current Saints DC Dennis Allen.
Allen’s first full season as defensive coordinator saw him use Vaccaro as a versatile chess piece, lining him up all over the defense. The result was excellent play from Vaccaro who was seen as the Saints defensive MVP by Canal Street Chronicles despite only starting 11 games due to a one week absence from an ankle injury and a four game league suspension resulting from a positive test for Adderall. In the 11 games he did play, Vaccaro was disruptive, finishing with 67 total tackles, 1 sack, 2 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, and 5 pass breakups. All would have been career highs if extrapolated out to 16 games. The Saints defense continued to struggle as a unit though, finishing 31st in points allowed.
Vaccaro’s 2017 was up and down. Again, he was briefly benched during the Saints Week 2 blowout loss to the Patriots, but returned to the starting lineup the following week. Dennis Allen used him in a variety of roles including strong safety, free safety, nickel corner, and outside linebacker at times. He collected a career high 3 interceptions through the first 6 games of the season, but a groin injury first suffered in Week 9 against Tampa Bay cost him two weeks. Vaccaro returned to the lineup and tried to play through the injury that was later reported to have been an adductor that had been “completely torn off the bone”, but his effectiveness was clearly — and understandably — limited. With two games remaining in the regular season, Vaccaro aggravated the injury in practice and was finally shut down and placed on IR. Afterwards it was revealed that not only would he need surgery to repair the torn adductor muscle, but that he was also playing with a wrist injury that would require surgery. The wrist injury was not reported when it happened so there is no clear timeline for how long he played with that malady.
When you look at Vaccaro’s career as a whole with the context of injuries and coaching staffs and surrounding talent, I think it tells the story of a player with tremendous potential who hasn’t quite put it all together yet. ESPN’s excellent Saints beat writer Mike Triplett had similar thoughts when writing about Vaccaro’s departure from New Orleans earlier this spring. Triplett still felt like Vaccaro had Pro Bowl level potential and could find a fit elsewhere that unlocks that ability.
So could this become another situation like when the Saints let safety Malcolm Jenkins go in free agency, and he went on to become a perennial Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion in Philadelphia? Perhaps. There is a good chance Vaccaro will find a better fit elsewhere and continue to show growth and maturity in his next spot.
Playing in a loaded secondary in Tennessee could be just the fit Vaccaro needed. Let’s take a look at some examples of what Vaccaro can do and how he might be used in the Titans defense under Dean Pees this year.
The first thing that stands out when watching Vaccaro is his physicality. He’s an aggressive player who can really bring a thump when he arrives at the ball. Here he reads and attacks a bubble screen and delivers a perfect strike on Golden Tate to stop the play for a short loss.
Vaccaro prides himself on being an enforcer in the secondary, something he discussed with Midday 180 in this excellent interview yesterday. While this next hit drew an unnecessary roughness penalty, I wanted to show it because it’s part of who Vaccaro is as a player. While I won’t argue the call here, I also don’t think this was a dirty hit. Vaccaro leads with his forearm and plants his helmet in Diggs’ chest (phenomenal job by Diggs hanging on to this one). It’s not a helmet to helmet shot.
Also, despite this clip, Vaccaro is not a flag magnet. He was called for 7 penalties last season per nflpenalties.com: 4 defensive holding calls, 2 defensive pass interference calls, and this unnecessary roughness penalty.
The physicality isn’t only reserved for ball carriers though. Vaccaro brings this mentality to every aspect of his game. Here is an example of him blowing up a running back who is coming over to pick him up on the blitz. His pressure forces an off-balance throw from Newton which falls incomplete.
Vaccaro is a very good blitzer, part of the reason that the Saints frequently tried to keep him near the ball. Here he is lined up as a slot corner — something he did a ton last year and really shouldn’t have been asked to do, but we’ll get in to that later — and blitzes off the edge to get a sack on Mitch (Mitchell?) Trubisky. You can see his speed here as he comes screaming off the edge.
As a run defender, the Saints often used Vaccaro as a force player off the edge and he was excellent in that part of the game. He both set the edge well and crashed down the line to make chase down tackles as he does here. The Titans defensive scheme is quite a bit different than what the Saints ran last year so you will rarely see Vaccaro on the line of scrimmage as an edge defender like this, but he will be asked to perform similar tasks.
Here is another example of a chase down tackle. This one shows Vaccaro’s nose for the ball as he strips Shane Vereen from behind to force the turnover.
This next clip will probably look more similar to where Vaccaro will be deployed in the Titans defense, though he’s still acting as a force defender here. His responsibility here is to set the edge and force the back — Dion Lewis in this case — back inside. He’s able to keep outside leverage against Rob Gronkowski’s block and step up to make the tackle for a loss.
Vaccaro’s physical nature shows up in his run support responsibilities often. He excels at defeating blockers quickly as he shows here, shedding the tight end and making the stop in the hole.
Trying to block Vaccaro with wide receivers is usually a waste of time. This next clip shows him tossing a receiver like a rag doll when he tries to get the crack block on him before going and making the tackle for a loss on the edge. He has outstanding play strength for his size.
When Vaccaro struggled over the last few years, it was often when he was asked to cover wide receivers in man coverage. As I mentioned, the Saints often used him as a nickel corner because it kept him closer to the ball to help with run defense and also to be able to blitz off the edge. The downside to that is that it also left him somewhat exposed on an island against much quicker and faster receivers.
Here is one example. The Bears put Kendall Wright in motion to keep Vaccaro from being able to jam him at the line of scrimmage — something he does well that often neutralizes any quickness disadvantage he might be facing — and then hit him on a simple slant route to pick up the first down. This isn’t terrible from Vaccaro. The Saints are in Cover 1 so his primary responsibility is to force the receiver back towards the middle of the field where he should have help from the single high safety and the robber, but you can see he just doesn’t have the quickness to stay tight to Wright here.
Here is another example. This time he’s matched up with Cooper Kupp one on one on the outside. Kupp beats him with an nice quick out for an easy first down as he catches Vaccaro a little flat-footed at the top of his route. Vaccaro is capable of covering receivers if needed, but it’s not something he excels at by any means. I really don’t understand why the Saints stuck with using him in that role for so long.
Luckily for Vaccaro, that’s something that he will almost never be asked to do in the Titans defense. For the most part he will be tasked with covering tight ends and playing robber in the middle of the field. His physical nature makes him a great fit against tight ends in man coverage. Here you can see him get a great jam on Panthers tight end Ed Dickson as he moves downfield, eventually getting a hand up to tip the ball — the ball was tipped at the line, but was headed directly towards Dickson — and force an interception.
I expect to see the Titans run a lot of man coverage this year given the talent they have in the secondary, so I would anticipate a lot of instances where Vaccaro is matched up on a tight end. That should be a good matchup for the Titans in most cases.
The other coverage role Vaccaro is likely to see a lot of is as a robber in the middle of either Cover 1 or Cover 3 looks. I thought he showed really good anticipation and route recognition on tape. The best example being this interception from last season. Watch him float over top of the deep post from the tight end first before scraping over to undercut the dig as he reads Newton’s eyes to the target.
Here is another example of him using his eyes in zone. This time he’s sitting as the curl-flat defender in a Cover 2 Zone look. The Rams have a good playcall to beat that coverage, but Vaccaro reads Goff’s eyes and jumps the inside route rather than following the #2 receiver on the speed out.
Vaccaro is an aggressive and instinctive player who shows flashes of excellence on tape. Occasionally his aggression will get him in trouble as he draws penalties or sometimes takes a poor angle to the ball, but I think more than anything the Saints defense asked him to do too much. He lined up all over the place for them, and while that’s great experience for a still-young player, it also put him in bad spots at times. I suspect we will see a very good Kenny Vaccaro in 2018 with the Titans. His role will be defined and he will no longer be asked to defend slot receivers — Logan Ryan has that covered. Instead, Vaccaro will get to focus on things he does well like run support, coverage against tight ends, and reading and reacting in zone coverage. That could lead to him finally recognizing his potential here in Tennessee.