First Round: 15th Pick
After Mark Barron rocketed into the top ten last year and Harrison Smith snuck into the first round, the safety position appears to be on the rise in the NFL Draft.
Kenny Vaccaro is atop most draft rankings at his position, but does he deserve to be there?
Vaccaro plays fast, with the mentality of a linebacker. He throws his body around with great physicality and aggressiveness and will level a ball-carrier from time to time. You might even call his playing style "violent."
Vaccaro is a supreme athletic specimen with good size and strength, and he plays with a decisive downhill style. He can disrupt plays in the backfield and has the physical ability to capitalize greatly when he sniffs out a play.
Vaccaro's aggressiveness often gets him into trouble. He overcommits and takes himself out of plays multiple times a game and borders on playing out of control at times.
While reading the quarterback's eyes and peeking in the backfield can result in splash plays, it also makes Vaccaro a beat behind the play or out of position when he doesn't guess right.
Vaccaro's fundamentals, especially when making a tackle, can be inconsistent. His game could use more finesse and deliberate decision-making.
Vaccaro is a fluid, gifted athlete, with the best combination of straight-line speed and explosiveness in the draft.
He plays and thinks at a very high speed. His change of direction/quickness is good enough to cover slot receivers man-to-man, and his range is good enough to be the last line of defense against the pass.
From a tools standpoint, Vaccaro is an elite prospect.
Vaccaro has one minor arrest for "failure to obey" before the 2012 season on his record, but is generally thought of as a high-character leader. He returned to Texas for his senior season and should be a great addition to the locker room.
Vaccaro played all over the Texas 4-3 defense, including slot corner, deep safety, in the box safety and edge-rusher on the blitz. He even puts his hand on the ground in short-yardage run defense.
Playing the Ball
Vaccaro has great reactions to the ball in flight, often because he is trying to read the quarterback to get a jump on the road. He battles and bangs in the air for contested passes and has a "My ball!" mentality.
Vaccaro isn't afraid of penalties when trying to stop the receiver from making the catch. He drives on the ball in flight like a cornerback and will usually get a hand on the ball when he is position to do so.
Against the Run
Vaccaro loves getting in the mix against the run, often creeping closer to the line of scrimmage at the snap. He provides run support with great aggression, but that instant commitment can cause him to take himself out of plays, especially against play action. Vaccaro will clash with blockers to set the edge and force a running back inside.
Few safeties are as physically formidable as Vaccaro against powerful ball-carriers, as he displayed in taking down 6'5", 225-pound Kansas State QB Collin Klein. He's an extremely stout run defender for a defensive back, and he'll even get his hands dirty in the trenches at the goal line.
Very few safety prospects can provide the physical play of Vaccaro but also be able to handle quicker slot receivers in man coverage.
His aggressiveness and physical play serves him against smaller receivers when the ball arrives. Vaccaro can lose track of his man downfield and is best when he covering on quick-hitting routes close to the line of scrimmage.
He isn't afraid to freelance and peel off of his man to make a play when he correctly reads the quarterback.
Although he was not used exclusively—or even predominantly—as a center fielder, Vaccaro has the range to perform the job and keep speed merchants from taking the top off of the defense. More often, he covers short and intermediate zones, where his decisiveness and closing speed serve him well.
Over-aggressiveness can kill Vaccaro here, too.
Sometimes, he drives through the ball-carrier and plants them with a form tackle. On other occasions, Vaccaro's zeal to lay a lick on an offensive player causes him to miss a tackle.
He's not the best in a one-on-one situation in the open field against a running back and does most of his damage in pursuit towards or parallel to the line of scrimmage.
Vaccaro's fundamentals come and go, with a few lunges mixed in, but he doesn't back down from anyone. He doesn't always take the best angles, but Vaccaro's speed and motor still consistently get him involved in the play.
Future Role/Scheme Versatility
Vaccaro will be a fun toy for a defensive coordinator to play with.
He'll fit well in defenses that have interchangeable safety positions and like to use safeties on the blitz. He'll have some duties as a nickel corner and provide flexibility in personnel sets.
On the whole, Vaccaro's skill set and demonstrated range of abilities are the best in this safety class.