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Saints program cover story: Kenny Vaccaro

Versatile safety key member of Saints defense

Kenny Vaccaro became a New Orleans Saint in 2013, the team's first-round draft pick (No. 15 overall) from Texas. And today, no current member of the secondary has a longer stretch of uninterrupted service with the Saints.

Let that sink in for a moment.

In NFL parlance, Vaccaro is all grown up, a young man (25 years old) but a veteran leader whose 50 games (49 starts) since the beginning of his rookie season have given him wisdom via deed and tenure. And he has needed every bit of it this season.

If the Saints' secondary had been a revolving door, passersby would've been knocked off balance from the breeze produced by the spinning.

Delvin Breaux and Keenan Lewis were expected to be the starting cornerbacks during the offseason. After Lewis was released during training camp, P.J. Williams ascended to the starting role, with Damian Swann slated to be the third cornerback.

Swann was injured in training camp, creating a vacancy that was filled by Ken Crawley.

Then (deep breath), Swann had surgery for a core muscle issue and was placed on injured reserve, Breaux broke his fibula in the regular-season opener against Oakland (he remains sidelined) and Williams suffered a season-ending concussion in the second game, against the Giants. Sterling Moore and B.W. Webb were signed after the regular season began; Moore was inactive for the season opener, played four straight games, then sidelined by an abdominal injury in the last game, against Kansas City.

Crawley and his fellow free agent rookie, De'Vante Harris, made the 53-man roster and Crawley has taken more snaps at cornerback than has any Saint this season.

At safety, there has been less volatility; Jairus Byrd has started five of six games, rookie Vonn Bell has started the last three and Vaccaro, who was inactive against Atlanta because of an ankle injury, has started all five he has played.

But the constant shifting assured that Vaccaro would assume even more of a leadership role, given the youth and lack of systemic familiarity of several teammates in the secondary.

It's not a role Vaccaro shies away from, for a couple of significant reasons.

"I try to help whenever I can," he said. "I remember my rookie year, (safeties) Rome (Roman Harper) and Malcolm Jenkins and (linebacker) Jonathan Vilma and (defensive end) Will Smith and all of those guys, kind of helped me to bring me along.

"I think it's my duty to do the same not just because they're young, but because I want to win. I want this team to win and we need those guys in order to win, so they've got to get caught up quick.

It'll take some doing for them to get caught up to Vaccaro, though. Arguably, he's the most versatile chess piece for defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.

On one play, you might see Vaccaro slicing into the backfield for a tackle for loss, like last Sunday against Kansas City, when he heat-sought his way through a crease and brought down Chiefs running back Spencer Ware for a 3-yard loss in the fourth quarter.

On another, he might be called on to blitz the quarterback; he had three quarterback hurries against Carolina, his presence easily identifiable if Cam Newton had been dusted for fingerprints.

On still another he'll be in coverage, as he was against Carolina tight end Greg Olsen, and although he drew a penalty for pass interference, it was the kind of call that Coach Sean Payton said he wished was reviewable. Vaccaro, in fact, appeared to have played the pass about as well as it could be taught, head turned as he eyed the ball and knocked down the pass.

In short, he could be anywhere on the field.

"I think D.A. (Dennis Allen) has a lot of confidence in me," said Vaccaro, who has 32 tackles, a forced fumble, two tackles for loss and two passes defensed. "Literally, (against Carolina), I played every position on the field except defensive tackle, and I think that's just him believing in me. I don't think that he thinks there's any limit with me. He asks me to do a lot of things and I try to do them as best I can.

"It means a lot to me. I think versatility is key. I think that's what you want in all your players, regardless of the position. And if it can help this defense get back to where it needs to be, then I'll do it. You may not get all the glory sometimes, you may not get the stats you want, but you're helping this team get better."

And the Saints are hoping this season to get better. Overall, the numbers haven't been exactly to their liking (29th in yards allowed at 403.8 per game, last in points allowed at 32.5), but there have been moments.

Oakland only scored 13 points through three quarters, before erupting for 22 in the fourth. The Giants didn't post an offensive touchdown in their 16-13 victory over the Saints. San Diego was held to 10 points in the second half in New Orleans' 35-34 win, in which the Saints forced turnovers on San Diego's final three possessions. And the Chiefs were limited to 20 points on offense, and 326 total yards, in their 27-21 win over the Saints.

When the defense is performing up to task, a safe bet is that Vaccaro is in the middle of the action, flying around.

"He is playing real consistent and I think he is a physical player," Payton said. "He has a real good idea of what each game plan is and I think he gives us the versatility at safety because he can play back. Obviously, with him closer to the ball we think is a strength of his, and he's a good tackler."

Close to the ball, off the ball, Vaccaro just wants to be on the field and involved in as many ways as possible. So that leads to an increased level of film study, given the nuances that he may be called upon to fulfill.

"I definitely try to understand how to make plays in each coverage, or each call that D.A. makes, in regards to what position I'm playing," he said. "My position could change every other down and on that play, there are certain plays that I can make on that call. So you definitely have to study a lot more but I've prided myself on learning the entire defense, so it hasn't been that hard for me. I kind of understand exactly what everyone has to do outside of my own position, so that's helped me play multiple spots.

"It's fun. It's challenging. I like to be tested. Going into a game, it's a lot more fun than just studying the strong safety position and knowing what I have to do. Knowing the whole defense allows me to make more plays, and I enjoy doing it."

It's an enjoyment that rarely has been interrupted for Vaccaro, who burst onto the scene as a rookie and gained notice as a player who appeared very much to enjoy all the physical aspects of the game – i.e., he absolutely loved the hitting.

"I still practice hard," he said. "If a ball is in the air, I don't want anybody to catch it. Everybody usually ends up on the ground, and it's not because I want to hurt guys.

"(Secondary) coach A.G. (Aaron Glenn) preaches all the time, you've got to practice how you play. And I want to finish plays. I don't necessarily tackle anybody in practice – I never did that before, I think that was a myth in my rookie year. When coach said it was a live period, I just knocked the crap out of people, like you're supposed to."

He's still doing that, while helping mentor and teach a young secondary that has mixed and matched all season, and hopes to solidify to reach its potential.

"Obviously, when you see the best secondaries around the league, they've played with each other for multiple years, they've had the reps together," Vaccaro said. "But these are the cards we're dealt and we can't complain. We've got young guys, we've got undrafted guys, we've got free agent guys in there but at the same time, this is our team, this is who we have to play with and we've got to get it done."

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