Saints' Kenny Vaccaro era ends with unrealized potential

"I love the Saints, my teammates and coaches," Kenny Vaccaro said, "but it's a business and I have sacrificed too much to not go get paid and be able to keep providing for my family." Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports

METAIRIE, La. -- A radio interviewer asked me Thursday if it would be fair to describe safety Kenny Vaccaro as a “serviceable” player during his five seasons with the New Orleans Saints. But I said that term doesn’t fit.

I understand the reason for the question. Vaccaro’s time in New Orleans will unfortunately be remembered for his unrealized potential, particularly if he finally goes on to make his first Pro Bowl or more now that he is destined to leave in free agency.

But Vaccaro was never just “serviceable” or “solid” or "ordinary."

Sure, the Saints’ first-round draft pick in 2013 could be frustrating and inconsistent. But he also flashed great potential at times.

And he always had a dynamic presence, starting with that first season, when he finished third in the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year voting while former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan used him as a versatile chess piece all over the field.

There were other times, too, when Vaccaro appeared to be on the verge of a career breakthrough (including last season, before he had season-ending groin surgery in December; and including 2016, which ended with him serving a four-game suspension for a positive Adderall test).

That breakthrough won’t be coming in New Orleans, though.

A source confirmed that Vaccaro won’t be back with the Saints when he hits free agency in two weeks. And Vaccaro told ESPN he has basically known that would be the case dating back to last year, since the team has never shown a desire to re-sign him.

The Saints also have drafted two second-round safeties over the past two years: Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams.

“I'm looking forward to free agency," Vaccaro said. "I love the Saints, my teammates and coaches, but it's a business and I have sacrificed too much to not go get paid and be able to keep providing for my family. That's just the way it is sometimes."

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why things never panned out for Vaccaro.

One of his greatest assets -- his versatility -- might have been something of a curse, since his role often changed. The 6-foot, 214-pounder spent much of his rookie season as a nickelback covering receivers out of the slot, which is what he primarily did in college. It’s something he always has done well and should continue to do at times with his next team.

But Vaccaro also played a lot of strong safety, some free safety and a pseudo-linebacker role over the years. He’s a hard hitter, effective blitzer and solid in run defense or coverage versus tight ends. But he also struggled with missed assignments on occasion, particularly in deep coverage. He was temporarily demoted twice during his career (though neither demotion lasted long).

The Saints ultimately decided Vaccaro was best used closer to the line of scrimmage, which is what his next employer should probably do, too.

Injuries also interrupted Vaccaro’s growth at times, including a broken ankle at the end of his rookie season and a quadriceps injury during his second year.

Still, Vaccaro’s combination of potential, versatility and experience should land him a healthy contract on the open market. He’s still just 27, with 67 career starts, 385 tackles, eight interceptions, 7.5 sacks and four forced fumbles under his belt.

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.

But that doesn’t mean the Saints are wrong to let him go, considering what it would cost to keep him and the fact that he's yet to realize that lofty potential on a consistent basis.

The Saints likely will add a cheaper veteran to the mix of Bell and Williams, since they like to use three safeties in so many of their nickel and dime packages. They could re-sign veteran Rafael Bush. They also met with former Carolina Panthers veteran Kurt Coleman at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis on Thursday, according to NOLA.com.

Or they could invest more heavily in a third cornerback and switch to more of a traditional nickel package going forward.

A change of scenery might work out fine for everyone involved. But it’s still hard not to consider it a shame that Vaccaro isn’t something like a two-time Pro Bowler about to start into his second contract in New Orleans.