METAIRIE, La. -- Believe it or not, there were a few positive signs from the New Orleans Saints' historically bad defense in 2015. One of the most important was the resurgence of safety Kenny Vaccaro.
Vaccaro bounced back from a sophomore slump with career highs of 104 tackles, three sacks and 16 games played. He went from being Pro Football Focus' 85th-ranked safety out of 87 qualifiers in 2014 to 25th in 2015.
Most importantly, the former first-round draft pick re-established himself as one of the building blocks for a Saints defense that needs as many as it can get.
"Anytime you have a down season like that, you get on high alert. Especially when you know you have the potential, you have your goals you set out to reach," Vaccaro said late in the season. "And you don't want to have any regret."
Vaccaro listed health as the biggest reason for his turnaround. He said he played through a variety of injuries in 2014, including ankle and quad issues.
But quickly behind that, Vaccaro said he "became a better pro" when it came to learning the position of strong safety and learning opponents' tendencies.
"I'm playing better this year (than I did my rookie year in 2013). Way better. But when you're losing, perception is reality," said Vaccaro, who was widely praised for his play in that debut season, when he finished third in the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year voting while playing for a defense that finished fourth in the league in yards allowed.
This time last year, however, Vaccaro's career was at a bit of a crossroads.
He admittedly struggled with the transition to a full-time strong safety role after he had played primarily as a nickel back as a rookie and in college. Too many missed assignments, too many missed tackles. And in December of 2014, he was called into coach Sean Payton's office and briefly demoted for those repeated struggles.
But Vaccaro said at the time that he felt like his talk with Payton "changed my career." And sure enough, Payton and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen both praised Vaccaro for improving his performance and his approach.
"To me, the biggest thing is Kenny took it upon himself this year to really become a pro," said Allen -- who explained that Vaccaro improved study habits and his ability to "see the big picture" in reading offenses.
"I've seen tremendous growth from him, just in understanding football and really working hard to not just try to play whatever the call is, but really try to understand how the offense is trying to attack us," Allen said. "I've said this before -- he reminds me, very similar to where Roman Harper was when I coached Roman when he was a fairly young player."
When Payton was asked if there was anything specific that Vaccaro needed to change, he referenced tuning out the distractions.
"He was a young, talented player -- and I'd still say he's a young, talented player. But I think it's hard sometimes when you come into this league like Kenny or a first-round draft pick, and you get all these things hammering at you in regards to distractions," Payton said. "He's a focused guy, but if you keep the main thing the main thing, and he's been able to do that, and that's go out and play, do your job, prepare each week, then all of those other things take care of themselves. That's the one thing that I've seen with him."
Vaccaro said he didn't know which distractions Payton was specifically referencing, but he said, "obviously there were some."
That could include the extra hype and expectations that surrounded him, including lots of Pro Bowl talk and some local commercials, etc.
"Yeah, I think you definitely gotta stay grounded. Expectations -- you gotta stay true to yourself," Vaccaro said.
Vaccaro said he wouldn't necessarily describe himself as guilty of "drinking the Kool-Aid" -- which is how some others on that defense had described their disappointing season amid high expectations.
But Vaccaro said he became dedicated to taking better care of his body after learning how grueling the NFL season could be. He said he would come in some days at 5 a.m. to get his body and mind right.
"I've always been super competitive and worked hard," Vaccaro said. "But I think to my standard, I don't think it was as high as it should have been after my rookie year, compared to how it is now."
Vaccaro said working with Allen for the first time this year has also helped, since Allen is a former defensive backs coach who helped teach him the nuances of the position. And Vaccaro said he has grown to "love" playing strong safety, which he said is more of an "art" than people realize, having to quickly diagnose run vs. pass, cover tight ends and occasionally blitz, among other duties.
Vaccaro's most noticeable improvement, according to PFF, was in his run defense. He more than doubled what they count as "stops" (solo tackles that result in an offensive failure) from 20 to 42 while playing closer to the line of scrimmage.
"I'm kind of running around with my hair on fire, just like my rookie year, because I'm comfortable playing that position," Vaccaro said.
Vaccaro, however, stressed that he won't be satisfied until the entire defense shows the same growth.
"It's nice (to be considered one of the building blocks)," Vaccaro said. "But regardless if I'm a pillar, a totem pole, whatever you want to call it, the foundation ... I don't really care about being any of that if we're not winning."