Kenny Vaccaro isn't ready to abandon his "reckless" approach to football — not even after a rookie campaign interrupted by two concussions and cut short by a broken ankle.
Looking healthy again during voluntary offseason practices, the Saints' 2013 first-round draft pick says he's eager to take on a leadership role in his second NFL season, all while continuing to initiate the type of high-speed collisions he feels he has to embrace to be effective.
"What am I going to do, not hit anymore?" Vaccaro said after practice this week. "The way I play — a lot of guys are like that. I mean, I'm reckless. I like to bring the physical aspect to the game. ... I'm not going to ever slow down just because I knock myself out."
The Saints want Vaccaro on the field as often as possible. Yet his teammates don't necessarily want him to change the way he plays, either.
"His youth showed when he first got here because he was too physical for practice, but that is something that you really need in a strong safety in the NFL," veteran tight end Ben Watson said. "It's something you can't teach. His physicality is a tremendous strength of his and it's something that is going to make him one of the more feared safeties in the NFL. That and the fact that he's fast enough to cover."
And while Vaccaro doesn't want to dial back his aggression, he has come to appreciate that the big hit is not always the best play.
"Turnovers are way more important," Vaccaro said. "So for me, it becomes a point where if I'm going to hit a guy or I can get the pick, I'm obviously going to go for the pick."
Vaccaro finished third in the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year voting in 2013, when he was credited with 79 tackles, one sack, four tackles for losses, eight passes defended, an interception and forced fumble.
One of his concussions came on a collision with teammate Keenan Lewis as both went for a pass along the sideline. Vaccaro figured that injury was fluky because his mouthpiece had fallen out shortly before impact, which caused his jaw to snap shut so hard it dazed him.
The other came on a tackle of Dallas tight end Jason Witten in which Vaccaro took a knee to the head.
His season ended when he raced toward the line of scrimmage, dove into a pile and got his foot tangled underneath teammate John Jenkins, a 359-pound defensive tackle.
Afterward, Vaccaro's left foot was pointed almost backward. He twisted it into place, but couldn't walk and was carted off soon after.
Now Vaccaro isn't even wearing a brace, just some extra tape. He hasn't missed any of the Saints' voluntary, non-contact offseason practices and said he is "100 percent" heading into next week's minicamp.
Since his first season ended, Vaccaro said he's watched a lot of film, both of himself and star safeties across the league, looking to correct deficiencies in his game while gathering tips from elite defensive backs. When he watched Jairus Byrd — whom the Saints wound up acquiring as a free agent this offseason — he studied how the former Buffalo safety handled deep alignments, and how he positioned himself to make plays on balls in the air.
Vaccaro played at several different defensive back spots as a rookie, when defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was exploring ways to exploit his young safety's talent and versatility.
This season, following the departure of veteran safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper, Vaccaro has more responsibility in terms of calling out pre-snap coverages and getting teammates lined up.
"Now I can make all the checks, I can show different looks," Vaccaro said. "I can move people around; kind of like Rob Ryan uses me as a chess piece, but he lets me do it myself."
Vaccaro also reads up on the accolades given to his peers, such as Seattle All-Pro safety Earl Thomas, and reflects on what he has to do to garner such exalted status.
"Guys are going to lie and say that they don't look at that stuff," Vaccaro said. "You want analysts to say you're the No. 1 safety. And that's my goal. I mean, Earl, I think, is the best safety in the NFL, and I want to be better than him."
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