With the 2012 NFL season in the books, and the scouting combine in the rear-view, it's time to take a closer look at the 50 players we think will be the biggest difference-makers at the next level from this draft class. To that end, we're happy to continue this year's Shutdown 50 scouting reports (Hint: There may actually be more than 50). You can read last year's group here. The final 50 players were chosen and ranked based on game tape, combine and Pro Day results, overall positional value, and attributes and liabilities on and off the field.
#20: Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
We continue this year's series with Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro, who replaced Earl Thomas as the Longhorns' starting free safety in 2011, and brought a different set of skills to the table. Where Thomas was more of a rangy center-fielder, the 6-foot-0, 214-pound Vaccaro is a bit more old-school -- he likes to drive down and make the big hit, and aggression has been a big part of his game through his four collegiate seasons. Vaccaro had 13 tackles and a forced fumble in his freshman campaign, and found more of a starting role in 2010. However, 2011 was his breakout campaign, when he logged 45 solo tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and two interceptions. He received a second-round grade from the NFL's Advisory Committee and decided to return for his senior season. It was a wise move, as Vaccaro was able to log even more impressive tape, and show even more positional versatility.
"I played both safeties, strong and free," Vaccaro said at the scouting combine of his multiple roles in Texas' defense. "I played nickel. I played dime. In some instances I played corner. We had two great corners. But most of the time I played corner in one-on-ones in practice."
For those NFL teams looking to add a hyper-aggressive defensive back with top-level coverage skills to their rosters, Kenny Vaccarro will merit a very strong look.
Pros: Dynamic run tackler and slot defender who really excels in the front half of the defense. Jumps routes very well out of the slot and covers from tackle to tackle in motion. Shows a smooth backpedal and hip turn no matter where he's covering. Comes down to the line like a rocket from deep coverage to help on running plays; this speed also shows up when he has to jet to either sideline to help out with tackles. Excellent at trailing and mirroring slot receivers into and out of their routes. Covers speed slot receivers very well; help his own against West Virginia's Tavon Austin. As a tackler, has tended to go for the kill shot too often, but is learning to wrap up nicely in space. Extremely rangy player who will make plays other safeties simply can't -- he's very tough to elude between the seams. Has the speed and aggressiveness to blitz off the edge.
Cons: For all of Vaccaro's dynamism, he needs to get it under control on the field at times. Tends to bite on his keys and will get lost regarding what else is going on. Struggles with angles and placement at times in the run game and will get easily blocked out as a result. Tends to bite on fakes and counters and has to use his estimable recovery speed to bail himself out. Though he can play deep halves, Vacarro isn't strictly a side-to-side burner in pass coverage -- it takes him a step too long to get to the sideline to help cover. Can be taken out of his game at times -- tends to be too emotional on the field. Tendency to aim himself like a rocket could see him on the wrong side of the NFL's discipline. Not a turnover machine, per se -- caused just four forced fumbles and had only five picks throughout his collegiate career. Has had a couple minor run-ins with the law -- arrested in 2009 following a reported fight with another Texas student, and in 2012 for failing to obey a lawful order.
Conclusion: Though the NFL passing game is more and more wide open, leading to the increasing valuation of defenders who can cover a lot of ground in a big hurry, there's still a place in the league for those pass defenders who bring the lumber on nearly every play, and fly around with reckless abandon. Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed are two such players, and though Vaccarro doesn't yet possess their football acumen, it's worth mentioning that elite NFL safeties aren't generally so right out of the box -- it takes time to harness all that frantic energy. Pete Carroll has told me that it was a challenge when he had Polamalu at USC to get him playing smart as opposed to just zooming about with half an idea what was going on.
"He was a guy that could go over the top," Carroll told me last year. "He was such an extraordinary competitor and so fiery ... unbelievable competitors and so driven that they would lose their poise at times because they wanted so much to do something and make something happen. But when you corral that, that’s all you could ever ask for. It takes time to get guys to the point where they can utilize their instincts to the maximum and also stay in a manner of poise that they can make really good decisions too, not just let the juice get the best of them."
Whichever team selects Kenny Vaccaro in the draft will have the enviable task of doing just that, and that team could be rewarded with a multiple-Pro Bowl defender over time. Range, speed, aggression, on-field sense -- Vaccaro has it all, and when he truly understands how to use it, he will be a very dangerous individual.