NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
Texas strong safety Kenny Vaccaro opted to return to school for his senior season rather than join the weak safety class in the 2012 NFL Draft; unfortunately there are a number of highly-regarded safeties eligible for the draft this year who could be competing with Vaccaro for draft positioning.
Matt Elam (Florida), Robert Lester (Alabama), T.J. McDonald (Southern California), Bacarri Rambo* (Georgia), and Eric Reid* (Louisiana State) are all considered potential first or second-day picks.
The depth of the safety class may be appealing to the New England Patriots despite signing former San Diego Chargers combo safety Steve Gregory and spending a second round pick on Illinois safety Tavon Wilson in the NFL Draft. New England could potentially lose starting strong safety Patrick Chung in free agency at the end of the season and lack depth as well as top-end talent at the position.
Should Chung depart in free agency the Patriots will be forced to consider adding a safety next offseason in order to replenish their roster depth. Poor play by Gregory and/or Wilson would be concerning as well and could prompt New England to consider drafting a player such as Vaccaro on the second day of the draft.
As a freshman Vaccaro primarily saw the field as a member of Texas’ special teams units. In 13 games finished with 19 tackles, nine of them on special teams, and blocked a punt. Vaccaro assumed a larger role on defense as a sophomore in 2010 and made a total of six starts in 12 games, four in the slot and two at strong safety. He finished the season with 56 tackles, an interception, eight passes defensed, a forced fumble, and a blocked kick en route to being named the Frank Denius Most Valuable Special Teams Player.
Last season Vacarro started all 13 games at safety for the Longhorns and recorded 82 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions, and eight passes defensed; his production earned him an All-Big 12 first team selection from the conference’s coaches. Vaccaro could finish his career with as many as 51 career appearances and 32 career starts if he stays healthy as a senior in 2012. He is expected to reprise his role as the team’s starting strong safety as a senior.
On defense Vaccaro’s size is well suited to the strong safety position – he is listed at 6’1” and 215 pounds and would be one of the biggest safeties at the NFL Draft Combine in February if his listed height and weight are accurate.
Despite his size Vaccaro has primarily been given coverage assignments rather than being asked to line up in the box and defend the run. Vaccaro can often be found in the slot defending an inside receiver. From this position Texas has asked him to execute both man and zone coverages, two responsibilities which he has been able to perform effectively.
Vaccaro’s fluidity as well as his instincts allow him to shadow quicker receivers while his size makes him a difficult matchup for bigger receivers as well. New England’s defensive schemes often ask their safeties to line up in the slot and cover wide receivers. Tavon Wilson’s extensive experience as a slot cornerback likely factored into Belichick’s decision to draft him, which could bode well for Vaccaro.
Vaccaro is aggressive in pursuit and his power translates well to defense as well as special teams; he attempts to wrap up ballcarriers rather than simply hitting them or diving at their legs, which is unfortunately an increasingly rare sight among collegiate defensive backs. Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has also experimented with using Vaccaro as a blitzer; Vaccaro failed to record a sack last season but was responsible for five quarterback pressures.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has shown an interest in players who have special teams experience, which is an area where Vaccaro has had a significant amount of success. Vaccaro’s closing burst and aggressiveness translate well to that area of the field; he has found success blocking kicks and making tackles as a member of Texas’ coverage units.
As a rookie, Vaccaro would be able to contribute on special teams units even if he is unable to break into the starting lineup during his initial season; eventually Vaccaro could work his way into the Patriots’ safety rotation and free up a roster spot which would normally be dedicated to a special teams standout by contributing in that area of the game as well. Vaccaro has a reputation for being one of the biggest hitters on the Longhorns’ football team and uses his size and quickness to explode into ballcarriers.
Vaccaro will have the opportunity to improve his draft stock in 2012 if he is able to hone his ball skills; oftentimes Vaccaro is in position to make an interception but is unable to seal the deal and has just three career interceptions to this point. Another area where Vaccaro could improve his draft stock is in regards to improving overall awareness on the field. His athleticism allows him to make plays on the field but he often over-commits to coverage at the expense of run defense or gets caught out of position to make a tackle.
Vaccaro lacks top-end speed and could also move up draft boards if he turns in a time faster than his projected 4.55 or so; he is more of a fluid athlete than a burner. The safety will also be expected to stay out of trouble off of the field after being arrested this offseason for failure to obey a lawful order; the infraction is considered relatively minor but a second legal issue could concern NFL decision-makers and cause him to slide down the board.
Vaccaro may not have elite upside at the safety position but his well-rounded game should earn him a spot somewhere on the draft’s second day. New England may have the opportunity to draft him in the third round due to the volume of high-caliber safety prospects projected to be available in April.
Vaccaro’s size, versatility in the defensive backfield, extensive collegiate experience, All-Big 12 first team selection, and special teams contributions are all qualities which New England would value during the evaluation process; Vaccaro could make a stronger case for himself by forcing more turnovers on defense and developing his awareness as a senior.
Ultimately, whether or not the Patriots consider Vaccaro may depend on the play of rookie second-round pick Tavon Wilson, who played in the slot, at safety, and on special teams at Illinois and was likely drafted to assume a role similar to Vaccaro’s. A contract extension for strong safety Patrick Chung would also diminish the likelihood of the Patriots drafting Vaccaro; nonetheless Kenny Vaccaro is a name to keep in mind this season when evaluating potential members of New England’s 2013 NFL Draft class.