Jack of all trades, master of none...
Answer this question objectively; what has New Orleans Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro really done well? Most of you will point to his physicality when tackling. But can you name a jaw-dropping hit he's delivered thus far?
Some of you will point to the great range that he has. But his lone interception came on a poorly thrown pass by Arizona Cardinals' quarterback Carson Palmer—in what is referred to as a "gift" in football vernacular.
A ton of you will try to sell Vaccaro on being a great cover guy. Those doing that also sell bridges to the naive.
Let's not get it twisted. Vaccaro has all the makings of being one of the best players in the NFL. The ferocity with which he operates may only be superseded by his innate football intelligence. To put it simply, this guy is gifted.
So why hasn't he had more of an impact?
His stat line of 54 tackles, one sack, one INT and six passes defensed is solid. When you have as much talent as Vaccaro you're going to find ways to contribute, but when you compare his impact to some of the premier safeties in the league you can plainly see the difference.
|Safeties by comparison|
|Earl Thomas (SEA)||78||2||4||7||0|
|Tyrann Mathieu (AZ)||65||1||2||8||4|
|Eric Reid (SF)||46||0||3||7||0|
|Mark Barron (TB)||72||0||2||5||2|
And the difference is the other players actually play safety.
Calling Vaccaro a safety is only partly the truth. In Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's multi-scheme approach, Vaccaro should be tagged with the title of "defender" because he simply has no home.
When Vaccaro was profiled for this column earlier in the season, his vast usage was met with a bit of elation. Finding one player who could fill as many as five roles was as uncanny as it was intriguing. But now as the season has worn on, Ryan has yet to let Vaccaro settle in on one position.
This is in part due to the Saints' log jam at safety. Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper and Rafael Bush are all good players in their own right. And it could be argued that Jenkins is the best player in the secondary.
Often all the safeties are played at the same time, which means someone has to do something they might not be very good at. And usually that player is Harper, who struggles to cover tight ends. But it also can be argued that Vaccaro is equally inept at defending slot receivers—or receivers in general.
Here is a play that stood out this past game against the Atlanta Falcons. Vaccaro was used predominantly as a nickel corner, until he was used as a nickel corner. Zing! See what I did there?
Notice the pre-snap form. Vaccaro is standing very upright with his feet entirely too close together. In what this column refers to as "body distribution," Vaccaro has lost this play before it even started.
Conversely, cornerback Corey White displays some of the best form studied. He has the perfect distribution of leg width and knee bend. This is no knock on Vaccaro as he just isn't naturally a corner.
When your feet are too close together it makes it hard to utilize your agility. Slot receivers are usually some of the most agile players in the league. To win against these guys it takes proper technique—something you won't normally see from a player of Vaccaro's ilk.
The receiver is running a quick out, which isn't the toughest route to defend (especially from the slot). But with Vaccaro's lack of overall corner acumen, the receiver makes it looks extremely easy.
Just from a knowledge standpoint you know if a receiver starts chopping his feet that early, there are not too many options in the playbook for him. In addition, if you're giving up outside leverage—as Vaccaro is here—you know the receiver can't run through you to get to the ball. This means you should play out-breaking routes more aggressively.
But once again, Vaccaro is simply playing out of position.
Maybe if the Saints wanted a rookie safety with these types of skills, they should've looked in their own backyard at former LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu was actually a corner in college that displayed the toughness of a safety.
Conversely, Vaccaro is a safety that, at times, displayed corner-like skills. But there's a huge difference between the average receiver in the Big 12 conference and the receivers he has seen thus far in the NFL.
Ryan wants to play multiple coverages with the same personnel to create confusion, but he should re-evaluate the personnel. The safety who would be the best at defending the slot would be Jenkins.
Jenkins was actually a corner in college who was converted to a safety a couple of years into his pro career. He still has the technique of a corner when called upon, but he most importantly has time spent at multiple positions.
Vaccaro needs to be played in a single role so he can develop. Many have pegged him as a free safety, but when he plays that position his lack of ball skills is exposed as well.
Does anyone remember this near debacle? In the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Vaccaro was charged with the task of playing both corner and deep safety. Playing the latter, in a two-deep zone, Vaccaro found himself in a 50/50-ball situation with receiver Vincent Jackson.
Vaccaro misplayed this situation so poorly, that the pass was not only completed, but it also went for a touchdown—as Vaccaro barely laid a finger on Jackson. Luckily for the Saints the 'Bucs lined up illegally. This very well could have won the game for Tampa and the Saints would be on the outside looking in at a top seed for the playoffs.
It can be argued that the best player for this role is Bush. His range and speed (4.39 40-yard dash time according to TANDD.com) alone lends itself to the position. And he has shown that when given the opportunity he is a pretty good player in his own right.
Now, Bush doesn't remotely have the type of talent as Vaccaro. But he has enough time spent at the position to distance himself from the pack. With Vaccaro oscillating between positions, he's continuously making the same mistakes.
This was another one that could've been extremely bad for the Saints. Playing in a Cover 1 zone, Vaccaro's only assignment was not letting any receiver get deeper than him. But instead of playing his assignment, Vaccaro played the QB.
Being that the QB was Tom Brady (New England Patriots), perhaps the greatest QB ever, he was manipulated into a costly mistake.
These types of mistakes just can't happen on a Super Bowl team. And they wouldn't if Vaccaro was left alone to develop as a safety. A player like Oakland Raiders' safety Charles Woodson is perfect for this kind of role, but only because he got the chance to master multiple roles over a long time span.
Technically, we don't know exactly what kind of player Vaccaro is. He is not dominating at any aspect of football. Now don't get me wrong, he's doing a fine job under the given circumstances, but he has the type of talent that should affect the game in a major way.
Ryan should take note of how the Pittsburgh Steelers used a young Troy Polamalu. Vaccaro and Polamalu are almost like clones. They both are ferocity-based players who rely on instincts rather than technique. In fact Polamalu still struggles to track the ball and defend receivers to this day.
But his presence has been felt like no other.
The Steelers designed a scheme that allows Polamalu to roam around the line of scrimmage and affect plays any way he chooses. It's nothing to see him blow up a run play behind the line of scrimmage, sack the QB or pick off a pass meant for an underneath target. The common denominator being he's always around the ball.
Tell me you can't imagine Vaccaro in this type of role.
Here we have Troy following the tight end in motion. Though the tight end is his primary assignment, he has the flexibility to do whatever his instincts tell him.
With the end settling in the backfield, Troy's instincts tell him to shoot the gap.
And his instincts were right as he affected the play in the backfield with a QB sack.
Vaccaro has similar traits and could make similar plays right now as a rookie. Putting multiple hats on Vaccaro has not allowed him to make the type of impact one would expect. Vaccaro has had a fine season, but he has the talent to be the best player on the defense present day.
Vaccaro should not defend receivers anywhere on the field. And it's debatable if he has the ball skills to play free safety as he once was advertised. But as an in-the-box safety, his physicality and instincts would make it hard for the defense to get a bead on what he's actually doing.
This would put a lot more on the opposing offense's plate, and would in turn make Vaccaro a lot more productive. One thing's for certain, Vaccaro will be an impact player in the NFL. It just may not be until the Saints allow him to settle into a singular role.
Make it happen Rob...
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