It was a bad day for New Orleans the last time Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro was seen in action before Thursday.
He was flagged for a horse collar tackle that he would eventually be fined almost $16,000 for, and he fractured a fibula all before the end of the first quarter in that Week 16 showdown at divisional rival Carolina. The Panthers won that game and clinched the NFC South a week later, sending the Saints on the road for two playoff contests, the second of which they lost to end their season.
But when Vaccaro trotted out to the Saints practice field for the first voluntary, organized team activities open to the media Thursday, he put more distance between himself and such sour memories by moving around at what definitely appeared to be his normal speed.
He fully participated in individual drills, and in non-contact team ones he worked alongside the defensive starters.
A little more than five months removed from his injury, Vaccaro wasn’t a protagonist in the biggest defensive moments of the day, such as when safety Rafael Bush and rookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste forced fumbles the offense failed to recover, or when cornerback Champ Bailey batted a ball that was intercepted.
He also didn’t enter the locker room at Saints headquarters when reporters were allowed in, resulting in more media attention for other players — especially on a day when there was news that the team’s marquee free-agent addition, safety Jairus Byrd, was undergoing a minor back surgery that is anticipated to bar him from full on-field workouts until training camp.
But judging from their remarks, Saints coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan were pleased with Vaccaro’s shape as OTAs from June 3-5 and June 16-19 near and a mandatory minicamp from June 10-12 looms.
“In your second year, your familiarity with the terminology and the overall understanding of what we do (improves),” Payton said.
“Prior to his injury, each week he kept getting better and better. For him to get aligned, get set up, make the calls — that part is probably a lot smoother than it was this time last year.”
In his typical colorful fashion, Ryan added, “I’m not a doctor. I don’t know how fast he’s supposed to come back from injury or what, but he looks great. He’s been working hard; he knows the defense inside-out — as most of our guys do.”
Vaccaro, a first-round pick out of Texas in 2013, prepares for his second year in the NFL after placing among Saints team leaders with 79 combined tackles, a sack, an interception and a forced fumble over 15 games. He did all that while lining up in several positions — covering slot receivers, patrolling deep, monitoring the area linebackers usually do, thriving in run defense — as the Saints gave up the fourth-fewest yards and points in the league in their first season under Ryan.
Yet the Saints so tasked Vaccaro to compensate for a wave of injuries on defense and to get who Ryan considered the best players available to him on the field.
If the Saints are healthier in 2014 than they were last year, they don’t plan on having Vaccaro rove as much and instead hope they can let him focus on a more concentrated role complementing Byrd, Payton has said.
The public will have to wait a little longer to get its first glimpse of Vaccaro collaborating with Byrd, whose 22 interceptions are the most among safeties since he joined the NFL as second-round selection for the Buffalo Bills in 2009. But when that time comes, Payton sounds like he expects to see big things.
Vaccaro, Payton said, “is certainly someone (who) is comfortable with the system.”