METAIRIE, La. — One after another, names were called out at the NFL draft in April and one after another, players not named Kenny Vaccaro left the green room, large smiles plastered on their faces.
Fourteen players walked up to meet NFL commissioner Roger Goodell before Vaccaro.
That’s not something the 6-foot, 214-pound dynamo safety said he will quickly forget.
And for that, the Saints will always be thankful.
Because with the 15th pick this past spring, New Orleans took Vaccaro and he immediately made a difference.
“Kenny – I’ve never been around a rookie that has came in NFL-ready like he is,” veteran inside linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “I say NFL-ready just from the standpoint of playing half-field safety, coming down and manning slot, coming in and playing some linebacker, being physical in the run game and doing all that.”
How NFL-ready was the former Texas defensive back?
He finished third on the Saints with 77 tackles. He contributed eight passes defensed, four tackles for a loss, three quarterback hits and one sack, interception and forced fumble each.
But it’s the tackles he didn’t record, the stats that don’t show up in the post-game stat book that show his true impact.
When he was drafted, there was question as to whether he would end up taking the spot of either veteran Roman Harper or veteran Malcolm Jenkins. Instead, first-year defensive coordinator employed him in addition to Harper and Jenkins, using all three safeties to clog up the deep half of the field.
The versatile 22-year-old was often put to the task of taking out the opponent’s tight end, oftentimes Pro Bowl-caliber players.
For instance, Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez, who caught just seven passes for 79 yards and a touchdown against the Saints this season. For the first time since signing with the Falcons, Gonzalez didn’t have at least 10 catches and at least 112 yards receiving in two games against the Saints. He finished with just seven catches for 79 yards and was largely a non-factor.
Just as important as shutting down tight ends was his ability to keep a play in front of him.
“He’s an extremely physical player, good tackler (and) there’s no leaky yardage,” coach Sean Payton said. “When you talk about finish, if the tackle is happening two yards downfield, the yards gained are two yards. He’s got good instincts.”
Vaccaro’s season ended in the 16th game when he broke his ankle against Carolina. His presence certainly was missed in the playoffs, especially in Seattle when Marshawn Lynch broke two runs for touchdowns, plays in which Vaccaro had been able to keep from happening in the regular season.
Injury or not, Vaccaro earned the respect of his teammates in less than a year.
“He just loves football,” Lofton said. “I feel like he came in and he’s going to be a special player for many years to come.”