METAIRIE — Out where Kenny Vaccaro hails from, his last name is a synonym for “cowboy.”
That’s fitting. Because if there’s one thing the Saints defense is definitely in need of, it’s a man on horseback.
And that’s definitely how the safety out of Texas, whom the team took with its first-round draft pick Thursday night, sees himself. Via the 40-plus message-bearing tattoos that cover his body, he wants everyone else to know that, too.
“Obviously they feel like that they need to fix (the defense),” Vaccaro said. “And I understand that is what they drafted me for. So that’s my plan.”
That’s an attitude that seemed to be missing, physically and verbally, during the defense’s one season under Steve Spagnuolo. One seldom got a sense of anger about the team headed toward becoming statistically the worst defense in the history of the NFL until it was too late. And even then, it gave up 44 points and 530 yards in the season-ender against Carolina.
There were low-wattage grumblings throughout about Spags’ inflexibility, especially at pressuring the quarterback. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that it took Sean Payton about 24 hours after his suspension was lifted to make a change.
And while hopefully new coordinator Rob Ryan won’t repeat the excesses of the Gregg Williams era, Vaccaro arrives with a big helping of Ryan-esque swagger.
“Kenny Vaccaro is tough, he’s smart, he’s a playmaker and he practiced like he was in a game every day,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “He’s very passionate about football. He brings leadership and he brings toughness.”
LSU fans say the same things about former Tigers safety Eric Reid, whom the San Francisco 49ers traded up to get with the 18th pick, three after the Saints tabbed Vaccaro.
They have the same qualities but, as a four-year player, Vaccaro is more seasoned than Reid, who found himself on the wrong end of too many risk/reward situations. That’s why the Saints went with Vaccaro, who was higher rated than Reid on almost every board.
At any rate, incumbent safeties Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins can consider themselves on notice — especially Harper, who’s due $5.2 million this season.
And thus the rebuilding of the Saints defense continues. There may be fewer new faces than one might expect due to salary-cap restraints, but it still will be markedly different from 2012.
Keenan Lewis brings a Pro Bowl-caliber presence at cornerback. And while the team could have gone for an edge-rush linebacker such as Jarvis Jones instead of Vaccaro, the former Georgia star appears less versatile, and his workouts didn’t match his productivity.
Besides, the Saints — and especially Ryan — have considerable faith in free agent Victor Butler, who mastered Ryan’s system in Dallas; fast-rising Junior Galette; and David Hawthorne, who could never get healthy enough last year to deliver on the promise he showed in his four seasons at Seattle on the outside.
On most teams, veterans Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith would have been let go. Perhaps the Saints figured they owed them for their fidelity during the pay-for-performance scandal.
And the draft didn’t end with just one pick. Which is what it did the last time the Saints drafted a player from Texas — Ricky Williams.
Vaccaro isn’t arriving with the hoopla Williams did.
But better a cowboy with multiple tats than an oddball with dreadlocks.