Why Vaccaro is on the list
Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan couldn't wait to unwrap Vaccaro as a rookie. Freshly dumped by the Cowboys, Ryan knew the New Orleans job was a gift from the football gods, and Vaccaro was the key ingredient to making Ryan's strange defensive gumbo go down easy. In the rookie's first game as a pro, he lined up as a single high safety, a two-deep safety, often as a slot cornerback and occasionally as an outside linebacker.
There is a duality to Vaccaro's game. He hits hard in run support and attacks the line of scrimmage with zeal. But Vaccaro seemed nearly as comfortable handling cornerback-like duties as a rookie. In two of the games I charted, he played more snaps in the slot as a cornerback than he did at "safety." (Whatever that means anymore.)
Vaccaro tracked tight ends like Tony Gonzalez and Greg Olsen one-on-one, but he also matched up well with Carolina's Steve Smith. He even covered Brandon Marshall and Larry Fitzgerald in the slot. Saints coach Sean Payton said they drafted Vaccaro in part because of his performance against Tavon Austin in college. Injuries around Vaccaro forced him to play cornerback more as the season progressed. His effectiveness went up in the second half of the season even if he didn't make a lot of big plays.
Like a lot of great safeties, some of Vaccaro's best traits don't show up in the stat sheet. He is a terrific open field tackler. He's smart and fundamentally solid, essentially not giving up any big plays in the entire second half of the season. So many of the Saints defense's deep mishaps were when Vaccaro was assigned near the line of scrimmage. That's not a coincidence.
Ryan called Vaccaro the best "overall safety" in the league, while admitting that Earl Thomas was the best free safety. That was partly typical Ryan bombast, but it speaks to Vaccaro's unusual role as a rookie. He was asked to be a "glue" guy, helping to hold the secondary together when most players are just figuring out the league. That bodes well for a massive second-year jump.
Ryan might have asked Vaccaro to do too much as a rookie. In the first half of the season, Vaccaro didn't excel when he lined up as a deep safety. The Saints have spoken this offseason about dialing back Vaccaro's responsibilities with Jairus Byrd in town. With Byrd taking most of the traditional "free safety" roles, Vaccaro should be freed up to play closer to the line of scrimmage. They should be the best safety tandem east of Seattle.
"Offensive guys obviously don't like it," Vaccaro said last year. "I think Rob (Ryan) loves it. Everybody is watching and everybody sees. Real recognize real."
Vaccaro needs to balance using his aggression with taking too many penalties, like the one below:
Perhaps Vaccaro's biggest obstacle to stardom is that so much of what he does can't be seen without NFL Game Rewind's "All 22" film. Many of Vaccaro's best moments won't make a highlight reel. He needs to mix in big plays with his ability to shut down a screen pass or disrupt a tight end's route before it ever starts.
Vaccaro figures to be classified as a strong safety this season for Pro Bowl purposes. It's a position where guys like LaRon Landry and Donte Whitner have sneaked their way to Hawaii in recent years. Vaccaro can absolutely rival other candidates like Eric Berry, Kam Chancellor and Troy Polamalu to make it this year.
Still, calling Vaccaro a strong safety feels like missing the point. My Making the Leap picks didn't make the list because they do one thing extremely well. Guys like Jamie Collins, Ladarius Green and Vaccaro made the list because they are hard to classify.
With "3-4" and "4-3" defense monikers rendered nearly obsolete, unclassifiable players are prized. Rob Ryan doesn't want a safety. He wants a safety/cornerback/linebacker. A Vaccaro.