METAIRIE, La. – So much for starting slowly. New Orleans Saints rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro has played every snap on defense so far this season -- plus 22 more snaps on special teams through the first two games.
And, by his count, he’s lined up at six or seven different positions.
“I think I’ve played every position except for D-tackle and D-end,” Vaccaro said before thinking better of it. “Well, sometimes I line up there and blitz.”
Vaccaro was quick to add that he “loves” the way he’s being used by creative Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. So far he has lined up as a deep safety, an in-the-box safety, a nickel back in the slot, a corner on the outside, an inside linebacker and an outside linebacker in various formations and schemes.
“I think versatility was the big thing when I got drafted. But I didn’t know it was gonna be this much versatility,” said Vaccaro, who spent most of his career at Texas covering top receivers in the slot and was known for his prowess in both pass coverage and run defense. “I thought it was, ‘Alright, a little nickel, safety’. But they really use me in every way. And I think Rob’s scheme fits perfect. Because a 220-pound nickel-slash-corner-slash-linebacker-slash-outside linebacker, I think it works in this scheme.”
Vaccaro said he believes he earned that trust from Ryan and the Saints’ coaching staff during organized team activities (OTAs) this summer.
“I don’t think Rob said he’s put this much on a rookie in his whole life, playing six, seven positions,” Vaccaro said. “So he’s really putting a lot on me. But I think I showed that in OTAs that I can do it.”
Although Vaccaro’s statistics don’t jump off the page (10 tackles, one pass break-up, no interceptions or forced fumbles), the Saints’ entire defense has been thriving.
And Vaccaro’s one pass break-up was arguably the biggest defensive play of the season to date. He showed off his athleticism by reaching to bat away a fourth-down pass from Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez in the end zone to seal the Saints’ Week 1 victory.
ESPN NFL Insider Matt Williamson, a former NFL and college scout, said he has been impressed by what he’s seen early from Vaccaro, whom he believes will compete for the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
“A true jack of all trades that has to be accounted for on every snap, because you never know where he is going to be,” Williamson said. “Vaccaro isn’t as explosive as Polamalu, but he does offer similar versatility.”
Of course Vaccaro (listed at 6-feet, 214 pounds) remains a work in progress. Veteran teammates Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper both said last week that Vaccaro has been out of position at times -- but they said he’s shown the ability to make corrections on the fly (though Vaccaro respectfully disputed that was the case on the final play against Atlanta).
Vaccaro also nearly got burned for a game-changing deep touchdown pass to Tampa Bay receiver Vincent Jackson in Week 2. But he got bailed out when the play was nullified by an unrelated penalty call.
Vaccaro said he felt like he had “great position” on the play. But the ball was slightly underthrown, and Vaccaro admitted he didn’t have much of a chance of winning a jump ball against the 6-foot-5, 230-pound receiver.
“I’ve got to try to knock it down or make the tackle,” said Vaccaro, whose biggest mistake was allowing Jackson to land and run to the end zone. “I’ve got to make that tackle.”
Vaccaro said that play was a good teaching moment for him. He said he had never actually been tested like that by a deep ball in college. But he has quickly learned that NFL quarterbacks aren’t afraid to get aggressive and let their offensive weapons try to win those battles against smaller defensive backs.
So Vaccaro needs to keep adjusting to the new wrinkles he’s seeing. But in the process, he’s forcing opposing offenses to do the same.