METAIRIE, La. -- Second-year New Orleans Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro came it at No. 55 on ESPN’s ranking of the top 100 defensive players in the NFL -- a very impressive debut for a young dynamo who is still just scratching the surface of his potential.
Obviously the 90-member panel of voters caught wind of the buzz that was generated by Vaccaro during his rookie year, when he finished third in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. And based on early indications this preseason, he might well move himself further up the charts next year.
But more on Vaccaro in a minute. First, I want to talk about the biggest oversight on the list – Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis finishing at No. 101.
Actually, Lewis tied for 100th with Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Mark Barron but lost out on the tiebreaker. And let’s be honest, what could be more fitting for Lewis, whose sensational 2013 season flew way too far under the radar.
If you asked me to name a defensive MVP for the Saints last year, I’d have a hard time deciding between Lewis and defensive end Cameron Jordan (who made his first trip to the Pro Bowl and will appear higher on the #NFLRank list next week). Lewis was a bona fide No. 1 cornerback last year after the Saints signed him away from the Pittsburgh Steelers. He played at nearly a shutdown level on a weekly basis, even while being matched up against opponents’ top receivers.
Ironically, Lewis wasn’t fully appreciated until after a concussion knocked him out of the Saints’ playoff game at Philadelphia, and all of a sudden quarterback Nick Foles acted like he had just discovered that receiver DeSean Jackson was on the field.
So Lewis missed out on the Pro Bowl last year in a position group that, to be fair, is loaded with talented guys who have played at a high level for years. And such is life in the NFL when it comes to name recognition.
Guys like Lewis often have to wait a year or two too long before their skills are widely recognized.
Another guy like that is Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette, whose 12 sacks last year weren’t enough to land him in the Pro Bowl or ESPN’s list of the top 100 defensive players.
Another thing I like about both Lewis and Galette is their blunt honesty. Neither is afraid to admit how much it means to them to break through and earn that wider respect. Both have been known to complain about things like analysts’ snubs or Madden ratings via Twitter.
“I want to be the best," Lewis said last week, per The Times-Picayune’s Larry Holder. "I respect those guys -- Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman and them. But it's time Keenan Lewis can be mentioned with those guys. I'm ready to go."
And when I asked Galette this week about missing out on the ESPN list, he said, “Here we go …”
“If I say I don’t [care], I’m lying,” Galette said. “I mean, everybody wants to be recognized. I love the game. I have Hall of Fame dreams all the time. So I’m not just playing this game to be mediocre. I want to be a top-tier [player] recognized by little kids growing up, saying, ‘I want to pass rush like Junior Galette. That’s what motivates me.
“So whatever number they throw out there, I’m gonna get low-balled regardless, I feel like. Because in my head, I’m top tier.”
That passion is prevalent throughout the Saints’ young defense. Despite the praise and accolades Vaccaro has already earned, he’s made the same admissions in the past about wanting to earn even more of them.
“Everybody thinks about it. I mean, guys are gonna lie and say that they don't look at that stuff. But you look at it, you want to be on ESPN, you want analysts to say you're the No. 1 safety. And that's my goal," Vaccaro said this summer.
And sure enough, Vaccaro was the Saints’ best defensive player on the field last week in their preseason victory over the Tennessee Titans, forcing one fumble and nearly forcing another (which was questionably ruled an incomplete pass instead), among other plays.
I couldn’t help but think back to a funny exchange on Twitter early in training camp, when a fan asked me how Vaccaro was looking, whether he had lost a step or shown a renewed fire after recovering from the broken ankle that ended his rookie year in Week 16.
And before I could respond, Vaccaro himself chimed in with, “Gained a step.”
It sure looks that way so far.