NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans will be faced with a key decision at safety this offseason with Kenny Vaccaro set to become a free agent, and retaining him should be of the utmost importance for the Titans for a variety of reasons.
Topping that list is the physical presence Vaccaro brings to the defense because of his self-sacrificing style of play. Many of his contributions don't show up on the stat sheet, but those who are willing to go beyond the numbers see his impact.
"Kenny is a physical player, and he puts that on tape," Titans safety Johnathan Cyprien said. "What you put on tape is a message to the next team you're going to play."
It was an injury to Cyprien during training camp that opened the door for Vaccaro to join the Titans. It didn't take long for the sixth-year safety to show what he brings to the table.
Tennessee defensive coordinator Dean Pees loved that Vaccaro brought physicality to the field the first day he practiced in pads, helping the two form an instant bond. There was a play during team period when he whacked one of the offensive linemen, causing a logjam for the running back who was trying to find a hole.
"I came in and put my head down and went to work. I think a coach like Dean Pees appreciated that old-school, not-talking-too-much approach," Vaccaro said. "It seemed like from the very jump he believed in me. I felt like one of his guys within a couple of days. He's won Super Bowls and coached great players. Some of the things he'd say about me and tell me gave me great confidence."
Pees loves having Vaccaro around because it gives him a safety who complements All-Pro free safety Kevin Byard so well. Former NFL safety and ESPN NFL analyst Ryan Clark credits the Titans for having one of the most compatible safety duos in the NFL.
#KennyVaccaro @Titans is one tough man. Went back and looked at video and it appears he dislocated right elbow and walked off field with it out of joint. Expect a 2-4 week return with brace. pic.twitter.com/02E8pJKbwv— David J. Chao, MD (@ProFootballDoc) October 1, 2018
"The marriage of those two guys is an easy one to make based off of where they each excel on the field. Byard is a ball hawk. Vaccaro is your thumper," Clark said.
Vaccaro finished with 58 tackles, two sacks and an interception in 13 games this past season, but the Titans' record with him in the lineup might best illustrate his value. They were 9-4 with him on the field and 0-3 when he was out with a dislocated elbow in October.
The Titans gave up an average of 116.4 yards per game on the ground over the course of season, but in two of the losses that Vaccaro missed, Tennessee allowed 144 rushing yards to the Buffalo Bills in Week 5 and 123 to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 6.
General manager Jon Robinson has done an excellent job of adding talent at safety, and there's room for Vaccaro even though Cyprien is returning from an ACL injury that forced him to spend the season on injured reserve. A three-safety group consisting of Vaccaro, Byard and Cyprien is a good option for one of the Titans' sub-packages -- especially going against teams that employ two tight ends, including the division-rival Indianapolis Colts with Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle.
Cyprien's contract has two years remaining at $6.5 million each year. Byard, a third-round pick in 2016, is on his rookie deal. And 2018 fifth-round pick Dane Cruikshank is a low-cost reserve.
As the chart illustrates, several safeties landed big contracts in 2017, but Vaccaro, who wasn't retained by the New Orleans Saints after a groin injury kept him out of four games, remained available into August. He was a perfect fit for the Titans, who were in need of a playmaker after losing Cyrpien, and Vaccaro's 2018 production warrants a deal in line with the safeties on the chart.
It is no secret that Vaccaro wants to return to Nashville next season. Just take a look at his social media timeline for evidence. He feels that he fit in immediately. The way the fans supported him when he came to Nashville really resonated with Vaccaro.
"Usually on Twitter, there's a lot of hate, but it's been all positive," Vaccaro said. "I haven't had one hate message. I've never seen nothing like this in my life. That meant a lot to me. Even New Orleans fans, they were showing their love."
There's an appreciation for Vaccaro's rugged style of play from both the coaches and the fans. Pictures of Vaccaro walking off the field during the Philadelphia Eagles game with a dislocated elbow flooded social media. Fans posted a clip all over the internet of Vaccaro relentlessly pursuing New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley despite losing his helmet, with various captions adoring his willingness to put his body on the line.
The arrow is pointing up for the Titans, with head coach Mike Vrabel leading the charge. Vaccaro wants to be a part of the process. His style fits well with the rugged culture that Vrabel wants in place.
"Coach Vrabel would always ask players what their edge was. My edge was being relentless, being tough," Vaccaro said. "I wanted to come in and say, 'I mean business, and I am here to stay.'"