Saints fans fell in love with last year’s first round draft pick Kenny Vaccaro in his very first game.
Against the Atlanta Falcons in Week One, on fourth and goal with the game on the line, Vaccaro lined up on Tony Gonzalez in the slot with New Orleans in an amoeba defense. Vaccaro chipped Gonzalez at the line and broke up Matt Ryan’s pass to him in the middle of the field, deflecting it into the hands of Roman Harper and clinching the game. Throughout the season, Saints fans salivated at the idea of him playing for them for years to come.
However, what was Vaccaro’s role last year?
He was plugged into numerous positions: pitted against slot receivers, forced into the box to prevent the run, playing centerfield like a true free safety, and everything in between. Vaccaro was drafted and listed as a free safety, but he played like a utility player and more like a strong safety than anything else.
With the signing of prized free safety Jairus Byrd, Saints fans can rejoice. They now have a spectacular Cover One safety that can create turnovers, something that the defense sorely lacked last year. What’s more, Rob Ryan has recently come out and said that Vaccaro will have a more defined role in the defense.
This is fantastic news.
Byrd and Vaccaro have the potential to be a top-three safety duo in the NFL, and once Vaccaro settles in and finds his chops in his newly assigned role, he’ll be a lot better for it.
What does the conversion to a strong safety from a free safety mean? The two positions are actually very distinct. Where a free safety lines up on the weak side of the ball, he is usually staggered four or five yards deeper than the strong safety in a traditional 3-4 formation. A free safety follows the eyes of the quarterback, and is most often the one left playing ‘centerfield’ in a man-to-man one-high defense. The free safety represents the “one-high” player. He helps his corners over the top, and must be able to cover the entire field in order to be effective. Earl Thomas is an example of a prototypical free safety.
A strong safety – on the other hand – lines up on the “strong side” of the offense (the side with a tight end). The strong safety often has to rotate down in order to either stack the box and help out in the running game or cover a man leaking out of the backfield. Last year, Vaccaro frequently rotated down and covered slot receivers on his own, thus thrusting him into a nickel corner / strong safety role and undermining his position. Malcolm Jenkins played far more FS last year, although he often needed help from Rafael Bush over the top and therefore forced the Saints to use a lot of strange packages.
In the upcoming 2014 season, Rob Ryan seems to be committed to being less “package based” and becoming a base 3-4 defense. The duo of Byrd and Vaccaro should allow him to do just that. In order to see just how effective Vaccaro is, it’s important to examine his roles last year. Vaccaro lined up at free safety on only about 20-25% of the snaps that he played. The rest of the time he either lined up at strong safety or he rotated down to a slot corner back. Though starting out in two safety-high sets against Atlanta and Tampa Bay in Weeks One & Two, his versatility was utilized more and more as the season went on. He even went one on one against talents such as Alshon Jeffrey from time to time.
There’s a reason that Rob Ryan has touted Vaccaro as the most talented safety he’s ever coached. Vaccaro can do all of these things, but it doesn’t mean that he should.
Vaccaro was placed on injured reserve after he broke his ankle against the Panthers in Week 16. Things such as not being able to establish a rhythm can have a negative effect on the body, and playing corner is actually very different from playing strong safety; the necessity for quicker cuts and more read & react activity can take a toll on a player. This, in conjunction with Vaccaro’s arguably overzealous style (he was concussed twice last year in addition to his broken ankle) can really limit the playing time of an athlete.
The biggest thing that defining Vaccaro’s role can do is allow him to hone his skills to that role. Just as the physical aspect of corner back and strong safety is different, so too is the mental one. Where a corner back can simply read the receiver and follow his trail, a strong safety must compute everything at the snap. Whether they’re running or passing, who the hot read is, and what gap he has to fill are just some of the reads that he must see the moment the offense gets to moving. If corner back is more physically demanding, strong safety certainly demands more mentally. Practicing at one position can let him make all of these reads faster, thus helping him facilitate the defense from the safety spot where he can see the entire play unfolding.
Rob Ryan also loves to stack eight men in the box in order to stop the running game, but his ability to do that last year was mitigated due to the fact that he could get burned over the top. The Saints were second in the league against the passing game last year, but 19th against the run. Contrary to popular belief, the Saints rarely blitzed on passing plays, relying on coverage sacks and four-five pass-rushers. Being able to rely on Byrd and allowing Vaccaro in the box to stop the run could be huge for the Saints, particularly since he has such a strong nose for the ball (he was third on the team in 2013 with 79 total tackles).
Once Vaccaro is comfortable in all of these other roles, he can also hone his abilities to catch the football. Vaccaro had only one interception last year (against Arizona), but he had few opportunities. If he is used more as a safety and less as a corner, he should be able to improve those numbers. Byrd already gives the Saints the ability to rack up the takeaways, but if Vaccaro develops the ability to take away underneath routes and help out his corners in Rob Ryan’s beloved Cover 2 & Cover 3 schemes, the Saints secondary has the potential to generate a ton of turnovers in 2014.
In 2013, Vaccaro showed tremendous potential, and that was in an amorphous role. With the signing of Byrd, Vaccaro can come into his own as a true strong safety, the position that he appears the most comfortable at, and keep the Saints an upper echelon defense while vaunting up their run defense as well. Expect big things from Vaccaro and Byrd in 2014, and expect bigger things from Rob Ryan and the rest of the Saints defense as they reap the benefits.
Given the moves that they’ve been making, it’s clear that the Saints don’t plan on relinquishing their new-found top five defense any time soon, and this makes it a very exciting time to be a Saints fan.