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Saints DB Depth Doesn’t Bode Well for Kenny Vaccaro’s Future in NOLA

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The Saints screwed up the last time they let a first round drafted safety walk in free agency. Even after a five-year experiment, the Saints may still need a few more games of quality secondary play to convince them to move on from safety Kenny Vaccaro.

New Orleans Saints v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Prior to last week’s pivotal divisional matchup against the Atlanta Falcons, Saints’ first-round pick safety Kenny Vaccaro was placed on season-ending injured reserve with wrist and groin ailments that both required surgery. It is unclear when Vaccaro suffered the wrist injury, but we do know he injured his groin in Week 9 against Tampa Bay and sat out Weeks 10 and 11 against Buffalo and Washington, respectively.

According to Ian Rapoport - whose opinions I always take with a hefty grain of salt - Vaccaro’s groin injury seemed serious enough to end his season way back in week 9.

I’ve written plenty about my lack of trust in the Saints medical and training staff, even following this season’s firings and reshuffling. If Vaccaro’s adductor was completely ripped off the bone as Rapoport reports, the soon to be free agent safety should have never stepped foot back onto a field this season.

Vaccaro, however, had plenty reason to put his body in harm’s way and try to gut out the rest of the season on one leg. For the first time in years, the Saints boast cornerback and safety depth that directly threatens Vaccaro’s impending free agent situation. After proving just enough to warrant another season with the Saints, Vaccaro’s fifth-year option was picked up in 2017.

Despite the Saints’ investment in Vaccaro, they still drafted safety Marcus Williams a year after drafting another safety, Vonn Bell. The Saints also bolstered safety depth by resigning veterans Chris Banjo and Rafael Bush, who have both performed admirably when called upon. Even though Banjo and Bush don’t boast the same level of pedigree as Vaccaro, they are confident in their abilities on the field without him.

"I don't think we need to do anything different," Bush said. "Obviously, he's a key component to what we do, but this league is the next man up mentality. One thing I commend our guys is we have a lot of depth at that position, so I believe the next guy that goes in can do his job and I don't think we'll miss a beat."

If the Saints defense continues to play like it did against the Falcons last week, Vaccaro may be rendered expendable. Since being drafted in the first round in 2013, Vaccaro has played in all 16 games just once. After a stellar rookie campaign, Vaccaro broke his ankle with two games left in the regular season, and I always thought his absence in the playoffs that year was a factor in the Saints’ early exit.

Vaccaro’s 2015 season was perhaps his strongest, statistically, as he started all 16 games and totaled 104 tackles (71 solo/33 assisted), three sacks, and five passes defensed. This season, in only 12 games, Vaccaro had 60 combined tackles, 1.5 sacks, and three interceptions.

Before going on injured reserve after appearing in 12 games this season, Vaccaro had seemingly redeemed his less than stellar 2016 season, which ended in suspension for PEDs (Adderall). Despite ranking as the team’s best safety last year and 19th overall, the Saints defense still allowed a league worst 300 yards through the air per game.

But Vaccaro’s supporting cast in 2016 was Roman Harper, Shiloh Keo, Jairus Byrd, and then rookie Vonn Bell. This 2017 Saints roster is much stronger at safety and much younger too. I don’t feel the same anxiety heading into these playoffs like I did in 2013. This team’s depth keeps surprising me week in and week out despite a huge amount of injuries across the roster.

The in-season roster management this year has been lights out. A.J. Klein goes down. Manti Te’o plays like a beast. Multiple offensive lineman go down. Senio Kelemete fills in admirably. Trey Hendrickson sprains his ankle. The Saints sign a unicorn, George Johnson, off the street in mid December and he produces 2.5 sacks in two games. The only position, in my opinion, that hasn’t been adequately filled following an injury is that of a pass-catching tight end. Coby Fleener, you are missed.

The last time the Saints let a first round draft pick safety walk in free agency, Malcolm Jenkins went on to become a Pro Bowler and humanitarian leader of men. I have always felt Vaccaro played better alongside Jenkins than Byrd, and we all know the Saints could have resigned Jenkins for a fraction of Byrd’s ridiculous salary.

Writer’s note: I spoke with Saints former DB Jabari Greer and his take was this. If the Saints win the Superbowl, let Vaccaro walk because he’ll command more money as a SuperBowl winner, whether or not he actually played in any of the playoff games to achieve that.

Greer added that if the Saints exit early, try to keep Vaccaro around on a contract looking like 3 years/$3-4million per year/ $9-12million total.

Maybe the Saints would have a clearer picture of Vaccaro’s trajectory if they had chosen to resign Jenkins over Byrd? But hindsight is 20/20 and Vaccaro’s career and future value to the team will be hard to quantify. Perhaps the rest of the secondary’s play in the playoffs will clear up any lingering questions.