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Kenny Vaccaro might be having best camp yet after another position tweak

METAIRIE, La. -- Kenny Vaccaro hemmed and hawed a bit when asked last week if he was having his best training camp in five years with the New Orleans Saints.

"I was talking to one of the scouts, and he said it's been my best camp so far. But I feel like, I don't know, they all feel the same to me," Vaccaro said.

But when I told him I feel like he's been making more "splash plays" in practices and in games, he agreed -- and also said he knows that's what he needs to do more often to be more widely recognized as one of the NFL's top safeties.

"[The impact plays were] my main focus last year, and I think that will take me on that next step to be an elite safety," said Vaccaro, who set a career high with two forced fumbles and tied a career high with two interceptions last year in just 11 games before serving a four-game suspension for testing positive for using Adderall, a substance banned by the NFL.

Perhaps he would have had a shot at his first Pro Bowl without the suspension -- or if the Saints hadn't finished 7-9 for the third straight year.

"That's how you make the Pro Bowl -- your team wins and you make splash plays," Vaccaro said. "You can watch a guy that makes a whole bunch of splash plays, but his film sucks. And more times than not, he's gonna get the fan votes, he's gonna make those lists. I mean, you wanna have great tape, because all the teams watch it. But those big plays, those fourth-quarter plays when the game’s on the line, those are the ones that matter most. ...

"I want to keep evolving. But at some point, I want the respect I feel like I deserve, you know?"

This also wouldn't be a bad time for a breakout year since Vaccaro, 26, is scheduled to be a free agent after this season.

So far, so good. Vaccaro had a sack in Sunday's 13-7 preseason win over the Los Angeles Chargers and two excellent open-field run tackles in the preseason opener at Cleveland. It has been more of the same in practice, with a steady mix of sacks, open-field tackles and interceptions.

The 6-foot, 214-pounder should get a chance at making more of those impact plays now that he is lining up more often as a free safety instead of primarily in the box as a strong safety.

Vaccaro, who was drafted with the 15th overall pick in 2013, has always been praised for his versatility while mixing between strong safety, covering receivers in the slot and playing pseudo-linebacker at times. But he actually hasn't played a lot of free safety -- which allows him to have a better vision of the field and run downhill toward ball carriers.

Vaccaro pointed to a screen pass he blew up in practice as an example of the kind of play he couldn't have made from inside the box.

"I've never in my career been able to just roam and play free and roam, and that's probably my best quality is to be instinctive, to be a plant-and-drive player," Vaccaro said.

The Saints made the switch because they want to make their safeties more interchangeable so they're less predictable for opposing offenses. But secondary coach Aaron Glenn also sees the move as one that will benefit Vaccaro and suit his skill set.

"We don't want to put him in a box," said Glenn, who called Vaccaro "one of the rocks of our foundation.

"He's definitely a low [in the box] player, but sometimes you have to get out of your comfort zone."

Vaccaro has steadily improved over the past couple of seasons. But position switches aren't the only reason. He can also blame injuries and his own inconsistent performance for stunting his development earlier in his career.

He broke his ankle at the end of a standout rookie season that saw him finish third in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting -- and later admitted he wasn't fully healthy when he returned in 2014. He also battled a quad injury that year. And he was temporarily demoted late in the 2014 season after struggling with blown assignments and admitting he needed to learn to become "a better pro."

Vaccaro has also embraced a veteran leadership role in recent years and said he has to be "that alpha dog, that field general" in a young secondary.

"To me, to see growth, you've gotta operate on the outer edges of your ability," said Vaccaro, who pointed to a book he's reading called "The Talent Code."

"I've been really, really pushing myself to just keep raising my ceiling. I feel like I can do anything on the football field. And that's not just me being overconfident or anything -- just God's blessed me with that skill set."