White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. – Noticeably absent this New Orleans Saints offseason has been the sight of strewn, angry offensive players.
For the most part, team drills have been completed with nary a receiver, running back, tight end or lineman having to pick himself up – or be picked up – off the turf, his offensive teammates glaring at the defensive enforcer of the violence, tensions broiling beneath the surface.
Not that he wasn’t a hit – literally and figuratively – among his defensive teammates and Saints fans last season. On the contrary, the aggression of the then-rookie safety was embraced with a bear hug from his defensive teammates.
A year after surrendering an NFL-record 7,042 yards in 2012, the Saints' defense seemed particularly prickly in the weeks and months leading up to the 2013 season, a flexing that was spearheaded by Vaccaro, who seemingly didn’t meet an offensive player he wouldn’t hit, whether or not it was a contact drill.
But this offseason, the hits didn’t keep on coming. Vaccaro’s ascension into a leadership role has coincided with a reduction in bumps and bruises distributed.
“That’s naturally in me,” Vaccaro said of the aggression. “I’m always going to play like that. (But) I want to grow as a leader. I want to be a guy on this team that people look up to, so I’m going to keep growing.”
He’s growing into a player who’s even more knowledgeable than he was last season, and the consensus was that his football IQ nearly was off the charts in 2013.
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said he moved around Vaccaro more, and probably gave him more responsibility, than he ever had with a rookie defensive back. Vaccaro responded with 93 tackles, six passes defensed, a sack, an interception and a forced fumble in 14 regular-season games before suffering a season-ending ankle injury against Carolina in Week 16.
“He’s one of our smarter players and he’s one of our leaders,” Ryan said. “He’s had great growth. Coming back from that injury is awesome, to get him back out there. He looks great to me. The nice thing with Kenny – he knows every position. With a guy like that, they’re invaluable to your defense.”
Said Coach Sean Payton: “(Vaccaro has matured) a ton. From an Xs and Os standpoint, he’s really football savvy. He’s really, really sharp. He’s got good instincts, obviously he’s powerful.
“We’ve seen a big skip from year one to year two, and he was playing at an awfully high level when he got injured last year. His offseason has been fantastic. He’s moving around and carrying himself like a veteran.”
A veteran who, because of his knowledge of the defense, has become a leader at the age of 23.
“(My knowledge of the defense) is like night and day, especially having a defensive coordinator for the second year, (playing the) same defense,” Vaccaro said. “I think as a defense as a whole, everybody is flying around, (and) everybody is faster. Everybody understands what we’re trying to do and where we’re trying to go.
“I think we have a lot of leaders on the team. I’m just embracing it. I love football, and I think when you’re passionate about football, it kind of rubs off on all the guys. I don’t have to necessarily be vocal, but I can (lead) with actions.”
Expect those actions to leap to the forefront Sunday.
The kindler, gentler Vaccaro who mostly has avoided accosting offensive teammates likely will do just that Sunday morning, when the Saints have their first padded practice of training camp at The Greenbrier resort.
“Tomorrow will be his type of day,” Ryan said. “We’ve got the pads on, he loves to play. He’ll be excited and he’ll be running around and doing some things.”
And it won’t be a surprise if there are a few strewn, angry offensive teammates left in his wake.