15th Overall Selection by the New Orleans Saints
Overview: In the wake of “bounty gate”, the New Orleans Saints understandably struggled during the 2012 season. The defense in particular was among the NFL’s worst and entered the 2013 off-season primed for a massive over-haul. The Saints head into 2013 with a new look, a new attitude, and hopefully a return to the fast paced and aggressive defense which sat out the 2012 season along with former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. After getting let go from the Dallas Cowboys, Rob Ryan found himself in the New Orleans Saints cross hairs and became the driving force behind the Saints re-invented defense. Ryan brings an aggressive blitz heavy 3-4 defense and a boisterous personality to the Saints defense and quickly began implementing changes in both scheme and personnel. With a wide array of exotic coverage and blitz packages, Ryan and the Saints used their first round selection on one of the most versatile defensive backs in the draft, Texas Longhorns safety Kenny Vaccaro. The Saints have used Vaccaro in a variety of ways this pre-season, using him as both a safety and a slot corner in certain packages. Vaccaro has a fantastic blend of size, speed, and ball skills which make him a perfect fit in Ryan’s defense. Vaccaro joins a 3 man safety rotation featuring the hard hitting Roman Harper and versatile former first round pick Malcolm Jenkins, who like Vaccaro has the coverage skills to play free safety and drop down and play some slot corner. The added versatility to the New Orleans secondary will aid Ryan in his attempts to get creative when pressuring the quarterback without a proven pass rusher on the roster, and when factoring in the losses of free agent addition Victor Butler as well as the Saints most productive pass rusher Will Smith at rush linebacker, Ryan will clearly have his work cut out for him. The Saints defense will use a heavy influx of youth in 2013. 2011 first round pick Cameron Jordan looks to be a much more natural fit as a 3-4 defensive end across from Akiem Hicks. Hicks is a raw 2012 3rd round pick with fantastic measurable, but is still very raw. While the loss of both Victor Butler and Will Smith are unfortunate, hope is not lost at outside linebacker. Martez Wilson and Junior Gallette are both highly thought of within the Saints organization and recently acquired Parys Haralson will be a fine back-up/mentor for the two young rush linebackers and their development. The Saints and Rob Ryan realistically have no where to go but up after their disastrous 2012, but they have some very solid pieces in place to grow their new 3-4 defense into the class of the NFC South in a relatively short period of time.
Position Battles: The starting safeties listed atop the New Orleans Saints depth chart are Malcolm Jenkins at free safety and Roman Harper at strong safety, but the Saints plan on playing Kenny Vaccaro as much as both, and maybe even more than the one dimensional Harper. On obvious passing downs, Vaccaro and Jenkins figure to be the safeties, which in Ryan’s defense the safeties are interchangeable. Having both players capable of covering a slot receiver, tight end, or back out of the backfield will only serve to make the Saints defense unpredictable and confuse quarterbacks and coordinators alike while generating turnovers. All 3 players possess the explosiveness and physicality to be used on the occasional blitz, but only Jenkins and Vaccaro have the athleticism to line up nearly anywhere in the defensive backfield.
Notable Match-Ups: The Saints defense and Kenny Vaccaro will not be travelling along easy street in 2013. Within the NFC South alone, they have two games against Matt Ryan and the high flying Atlanta Falcons, the explosive Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, and the up and coming Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense which may offer more balance than any team in the division. Factor in the yearly conference schedule pitting the NFC South against the NFC West, and you get contests against Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers, Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks, and the emerging Sam Bradford and the St. Louis Rams explosive young receiving corps. Also on the docket for the Saints are Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys, and the Chicago Bears and quarterback Jay Cutler. One individual match-up to keep an eye on will be when the Saints head to St. Louis and Vaccaro drops down to the slot and squares off against the explosive Tavon Austin, the 8th overall pick in the 2013 draft.
2014 and Beyond
With Vaccaro slated to be a part time player in 2013, the pressure will be on Roman Harper to keep the young safety from Texas off of the field on first and second downs. Harper signed a 3 year deal early this off-season, but his veteran minimum 2013 salary spikes in 2014 and 2015 to $2.35 million and $2.7 million. If Vaccaro proves capable of handling himself as a run defender and 3 down safety, Harper and his salary could and should become expendable. Vaccaro’s best fit is most likely as a traditional free safety, but as stated earlier, Rob Ryan has always used versatile and interchangeable safeties so as long as he is in New Orleans, Vaccaro will play a little of both. As for the Saints 2014 and beyond, they need to get the defense to stop hurting Drew Brees and the Saints prolific passing game if they want to become serious Super Bowl contenders again. As long as Brees is the quarterback in New Orleans they are going to be an offensive juggernaut, but you can not win consistently in the NFL by hoping to outscore every team you face. If Rob Ryan is give the time and the resources the Saints defense will not take long to re-emerge as a force in the NFC and Kenny Vaccaro was an excellent start.