Kenny Vaccaro is a monster. He’s the football version of Pierre The Pelican, before the poor bird had beak surgery right around the NBA All-Star break. That Pierre was fierce-looking. He ate people!
OK, he didn’t actually; thank heavens! But the point remains, Pierre pre-surgery was scary. Vaccaro proved to be that to opposing offensive players last season.
In 14 games in 2013, Vaccaro recorded 62 tackles. Remember, his position – at least officially – is safety. 62 tackles for a rookie safety is beastly.
But it wasn’t just the tackles. The first-round pick from Texas also recorded seven passes defensed to go along with one sack and one interception.
It was the best rookie season New Orleans had seen…well since another basketball-related person emerged – Anthony Davis – in 2012-13. Like Davis, Vaccaro was felled by injury issues as a rookie, and though both were obviously the best player among the ranks of first-year players, neither won Rookie of the Year – likely because of the injury problems.
The ever-aggressive Vaccaro succeeded in 2013 while lining up almost literally all over the field. One play he was a regular safety, the next a linebacker, the next he was lining up versus a slot receiver and covering said player man-to-man.
Vaccaro may as well have been Stretch Armstrong because of his flexibility. His dynamic play, in fact, was one of the keys to a vastly improved defense in New Orleans from 2012 to 2013.
Sean Payton, though, made a somewhat bold, if not serpentine pronouncement Wednesday when he told the Times-Picayune, “Kenny played in a lot of spots last year. I think he’ll play in less spots this year.” Okay Coach, we’ll believe it when we see it for ourselves on the field.
Where Payton probably can be trusted is in this less declarative statement: “As for Jairus and Kenny, I think there’s a clear vision for how we want to use them.” Payton has long spoke of “having a vision for the player”, a line he learned from his mentor, Bill Parcells.
There is little doubt that Vaccaro will have a more defined role in 2014, as the defensive unit will not be as reliant on him to be the guy who causes confusion for defenses. In fact, with Byrd inserted into the lineup at the other safety spot, trickery and manipulation won’t be as crucial to the success of the entire defense.
More than ever, the Saints defense will be able to simply line up man-for-man and outclass opposing offenses, because it will be as talented as any unit in the National Football League. That doesn’t mean Ryan won’t still pull a few tricks. Doubtlessly, he will.
What it means is that he’ll be able to be even more selective and picky when he pulls a stunt. Vaccaro likely won’t line up in 18,000 different alignments in 2014. It may only be 800. His role will be more defined.
But don’t for a second think Vaccaro is going to simply be a “strong safety”. His greatest benefit to the defense is his versatility and ability to line up and succeed in any assignment. As I wrote Thursday, the defense will likely be more of a traditional 3-4 defense than last season’s version.
That’s the natural evolution this defense needs. Or at least the one that makes sense. It’s amazing how adding two players – a true “free safety”, and at least potentially re-adding a second true outside linebacker, will allow the Saints to become a more traditional 3-4 in 2014.
But don’t mistake them becoming a more true 3-4 defense for becoming boring, or less creative. In reality, the evolution to a truer version of the 3-4 will simply allow the unit to have more solid gap assignments and responsibilities.
The result should be an even more solid run defense, since run defense is based primarily on gap assignment football. But again, that’s where the versatility brought by Vaccaro comes into play.
While the unit may align more often in a three-down linemen, four-linebacker look, Vaccaro will still be free to roam, to blitz and align over a tight end or slot receiver when the man over that player at the snap goes in to attack the quarterback.
Vaccaro probably won’t see as many passes thrown his way, or have as many opportunities to tackle ball-carriers in 2014, yet Vaccaro’s production appears ready to increase.
More importantly, the Saints’ defense appears ready to grow once again. If it’s not the second best unit in the NFL in 2014, something went horribly wrong.
Mark my words.