Safety Kenny Vaccaro, right, stands with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after Vaccaro was selected 15th overall by the New Orleans Saints in the first round of the NFL football draft on Thursday. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Friday, April 26, 2013 10:08 AM
METAIRIE (AP) — When Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro visited with the New Orleans Saints in the lead up to the NFL draft, and talked with new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan over lunch, he left sensing he’d be back before long.
“I just had a real good feel walking out of there,” Vaccaro said Thursday night. “I told my agent I’d love to come there and play for them.”
And so he will.
Seeing an urgent need to strengthen a defense that gave up a single-season record 7,042 yards in 2012, the Saints took Vaccaro with their first-round choice at 15th overall.
Although the Saints have no apparent holes at safety, with incumbent starters Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins returning, coach Sean Payton said he expects the 6-foot, 214-pound Vaccaro to push for immediate playing time not only at both safety spots, but also at nickel back.
“We’re going to create competition with everyone,” Payton said. “If he was available, we felt like we were getting an awfully good defensive football player to help our team. … This is a good young football player that will add to our defense and we’ll see what happens.”
Harper did not seem bothered by the pick, welcoming his new teammate with a Twitter post.
Payton said the Saints liked Vaccaro’s “high football I.Q.” and the versatility he demonstrated at Texas, where he often was forced to cover slot receivers as a nickel back would because of the amount of spread offenses the Longhorn faced in the Big 12.
“That versatility is unique and something that I think is beneficial,” Payton said.
Vaccaro said he and Ryan “hit it off,” adding that he found Ryan to be someone who is “laid back, but takes football seriously — and that’s the type of person I am.”
Vaccaro made 92 tackles and two interceptions last season, when he was credited with seven passes defended. In 2011, he was widely believed to be a candidate to leave Texas early after being named first-team All-Big 12. That season, he had 67 tackles, including 61⁄2 for losses, two interceptions, and was credited with seven pass breakups.
While his five career interceptions seemed a little low for the top safety selected in the draft, Vaccaro and Payton both said that was because of how often Vaccaro was asked to cover inside receivers, assignments that made it tough for him to keep his eyes on the quarterback and anticipate throws.
“I was always the nickel. A lot of times an interception was thrown because I was locking up the slot receiver on the other side of the field,” Vaccaro said, noting that Texas initially offered him a scholarship to play receiver.
“My ball skills are pretty good,” he said.
When Payton, who was suspended all of last season in connection with the NFL’s bounty investigation, was re-instated in January, he wasted little time making moves to overhaul the club’s defense, firing coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and replacing him with Ryan, who will switch the Saints alignment to a 3-4.
Many of the Saints’ moves in free agency, such as the acquisitions of cornerback Keenan Lewis and outside linebacker Victor Butler, were aimed at shoring up the defense.
On offense, the Saints’ needs were not as immediate. Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees led a unit that ranked second in the NFL last season even in Payton’s absence.
The only significant hole on the offense was created by the departure of starting left tackle Jermon Bushrod in free agency, but the club hopes Charles Brown, a second-round pick in the 2010 draft, will be ready to step in.
In Vaccaro, the Saints gain a player who has had a hand in 11 turnovers in his college career. He did not get a lot of chances bring pressure behind the line of scrimmage, but demonstrated he could be an effective blitzer when given the chance.
“He’s got very good football intelligence and part of being pressure guy from the back end is anticipation,” Payton said. “He’s got that toughness and the suddenness that you like at that position.”
Vaccaro also played some at outside linebacker and middle linebacker at Texas, demonstrating the versatility that Ryan will welcome on his defense. On special teams, he blocked two kicks.
“I can do a lot of different things. I don’t think I have many limitations. I can cover and I can run support,” Vaccaro said. “I plan on doing whatever they want me to do.”
Vaccaro had some minor run-ins with police when he first arrived at Texas, such as refusing to leave a pizza parlor with several teammates when ordered to do so, but he said he has matured a lot since then.
“It was immaturity stuff,” Vaccaro said. “I came to school at 17 from a small town to a big city … but I’m good now. I have a son (who is 14 months old) and I understand that every decision I make, I’m making for two people and I am not going to give up football for anything.
“I’m clean and completely focused on football.”
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