Rookies in Focus: Kenny Vaccaro

Steve Palazzolo highlights the second-half turnarounds of 2013 rookies.

| 3 years ago

Rookies in Focus: Kenny Vaccaro

rookie-improve-vaccaroThere’s an obvious learning curve for any rookie entering the NFL, but some handle it better than others. With first impressions perhaps skewing our views more than ever due to social media’s inherent ability to overreact, we often jump to conclusions on prospects while wasting no time to assign the “bust” label. However, all prospects develop at different rates, and this particular group may have needed the first half of the season to adjust to the speed of the league.

[Click to see: comparison graphic | Johnathan Cyprien | Justin Pugh | Lane Johnson | Dee Milliner | Jamie Collins | Kenny Vaccaro]


Round 1, No. 15: Kenny Vaccaro, New Orleans Saints

Role: 14 starts at safety, including 276 snaps covering the slot

The ever-changing offensive versatility in the NFL made Vaccaro a coveted player heading into the 2013 draft. He was viewed as the prototype, new-age safety, capable of moving around the defense, playing both short and deep zones, manning up against tight ends and slot receivers, and sticking his nose in against the run. The Saints tapped into his versatility early on, perhaps to the detriment of his performance, but by the end of the year, things started to click before he went down to injury in Week 16.

Vaccaro 1st Half 2nd Half Overall
Overall -4.6 +6.5 +1.9
Coverage -3 +5.3 +2.3
Vs. Run +2.1 +3.2 +5.3


First Half

We saw Vaccaro play a variety of roles early in the season, highlighted by his work in Week 1. For the most part, he lived up to his first-round billing when lined up close to the line of scrimmage, but his work on the back end was concerning early on. When forced to play deep in two-high safety looks, Vaccaro was beaten far too often during the first few weeks of the season.

He also had a slow start defending the run, particularly in Week 1 when Tony Gonzalez (-12.6 run block) got the best of him, but those issues were shored up and became a strength by the middle of the season.  Overall, it wasn’t a disastrous first half of the season, but there were some clear bumps in the road when playing on the back end of the defense.

Vaccaro, essentially lined up as a linebacker, gets sealed inside by Tony Gonzalez in the running game:

Vaccaro vs run

Vaccaro loses sight of the ball on the deep pass to Vincent Jackson, then fails to complete the tackle. This play was nullified by penalty:

Vaccaro beat deep

Vaccaro gives up the corner route to Alshon Jeffery in cover-2:

Vaccaro vs Jeffery in cover-2

Vaccaro loses his man in quarters coverage, but bailed out by an eventual overthrow:

Vaccaro bites deep in quarters


Second Half

The second half of the season was a lot cleaner for Vaccaro as he cut down on the big plays, particularly in deep coverage. Of course he also wasn’t challenged down the field as much as he was in the first half as he didn’t see a target over 20 yards after Week 6. Part of this was his just being in better position, and that’s definitely a positive.

When looking at Vaccaro’s game, it’s clear that he does his best work closer to the line of scrimmage — either in a strong safety role where he lined up 70.6% of the time on run snaps, the second-highest percentage in the league — or in the slot where he allowed an 11th-best 0.97 Yards Per Cover Snap.

Vaccaro stands up and sheds Levine Toilolo to get in on the tackle:

Vaccaro vs. Toilolo

On 3rd-and-9, Vaccaro shows great closing speed coming from his deep zone to stop this play for three yards to force a field goal:

Vaccaro closing speed from deep safety

Vacarro knocks the pass away from Tony Gonzalez:

Vaccaro PD vs Gonzalez

Vaccaro with the tight coverage on Steve Smith in the slot:

Vaccaro tight coverage on Steve Smith


Final Word

The addition of Jairus Byrd to play free safety should allow Vaccaro to play to his strengths even more in 2014. He’ll still have to play his fair share of split-safety coverages, but expect the Saints to continue to move him around the defense in order to thwart opposing tight ends and slot receivers, while allowing him to play downhill against the run.


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| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

  • etchasketch44

    He’s awesome. Born to play football.

  • Donovan

    We all know he can play short zones, goal-line man coverage, and in the box…but his biggest question is can he be a deep safety? Doesn’t help having to play against Vincent Jackson and Alshonn Jeffery. I would have liked to see how he got better in the deep passing game. All the improvement clips were short passes.

    • Jason Pevitt

      He “improved” for this year because he won’t be doing it often if at all. Jairys Byrd will be patrolling that area allowing Vaccaro to play 4th linebacker/nickelback