METAIRIE, La. -- Kenny Vaccaro's best friend was looking for a job this spring. And Vaccaro just happened to know of an opening that he’d be perfect for:
Edge rusher for the New Orleans Saints.
Vaccaro, the Saints’ fifth-year safety, helped play matchmaker when his team signed defensive end Alex Okafor to a one-year contract in free agency. Vaccaro said Okafor has been his best friend since their years together with the Texas Longhorns from 2009 to 2012.
“He definitely stuck his neck out for me,” Okafor said.
However, Vaccaro can’t take too much credit since the pairing was so obvious.
New Orleans had a glaring need for an edge rusher on the opposite side from defensive end Cameron Jordan. Okafor now has a golden opportunity to start for the Saints after a series of nagging injuries hampered his first four years with the Arizona Cardinals.
“It’s surreal, man. Not many guys get to go back and play with some of their college teammates that are as close as we are. So it was just a great opportunity,” said Okafor, a 6-foot-4, 261-pounder who has 13.5 sacks over the past three years -- including eight in 2014. “Obviously I feel like I can be that guy (opposite Jordan), so it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
“I think I can fill that hole. I know I can.”
Okafor’s film was the main reason why New Orleans inked him to a one-year deal worth between $2 million and $3 million, but Vaccaro definitely played a role.
Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said Vaccaro gave the team insight into “what type of guy he is.” Vaccaro said he had brought up Okafor to the Saints’ personnel department, knowing he would likely hit the market after the Cardinals invested in Chandler Jones and Markus Golden.
“I said, ‘Just take a peek at him. I mean, he had eight sacks in 2014 and only played (13) games. Basically has been hurt and really could be a steal in the offseason,’” said Vaccaro -- who offered similar advice to Okafor.
“I sat there and looked at the opposite end position beside Cam, and it’s kind of been not there since Junior (Galette) left. So I was like, ‘OK, if I’m a free-agent guy, what team do I want to sign with so I have the chance to start?’” Vaccaro said. “And Arizona had him dropping a little bit (into pass coverage). He’s not an outside ‘backer. He’s a true 4-3 end, and that’s what we’re having him do. So it ended up being a dream-like fit for him.”
It’s been the same type of fit on a personal level, said Vaccaro, who quickly bonded with Okafor after they went to Texas in the same recruiting class -- then became two of the few who “lasted.”
“We’re the only ones who had enough up here to realize the big picture in the end,” Vaccaro said as he pointed to his head. “Alex comes from a good family. He’s a great person. I realized right when I got to Texas that this is a guy I need to stick with.”
Flash forward to now, and Vaccaro said, “It’s great. People don’t understand the magnitude. ... It just makes you want to smile.
“Just to line up next to your friend during the national anthem in the National Football League, that does not happen, ever, really,” Vaccaro said. “The percentage to be in the NFL is already low. To play with your best friends or people you played with your whole life is probably zero, basically.”
Okafor, who was a fourth-round draft pick in 2013, spoke highly of his time in “AZ” and said he didn’t necessarily think he was misused -- just that he has more to offer after his snaps decreased in the past two years while he battled toe and biceps injuries.
“I did what I love. I mean, I love to rush the passer, and at AZ I came in on passing downs ... but I just feel like I’m more than that,” Okafor said. “I feel like I’m a starter in this league, and I have an opportunity to do that out here.”
The Saints parted ways with their top two weak-side defensive ends from last year, Paul Kruger and Kasim Edebali. They didn’t sign any other high-profile free agents, and they didn’t draft any defensive ends until the end of Round 3.
However, Okafor will still compete with former second-round pick Hau'oli Kikaha (who is returning from an ACL injury), veteran Darryl Tapp, Obum Gwacham and rookies Trey Hendrickson and Al-Quadin Muhammad, among others.
“It’s just a fresh start and a great opportunity,” Okafor said. “I’ve been that guy before, and I know I can do that here. So it’s just getting back to what I do.”