As Saints coordinator Rob Ryan led his defense to a No. 4 ranking in yards allowed in 2013, rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro lined up in a multitude of positions.
He covered slot receivers at times. At others, he patrolled deep. He monitored the area that linebackers typically do. He’d occasionally creep up to the line of scrimmage and blitz, and he finished among team leaders with 79 combined tackles, a sack, an interception and a forced fumble before fracturing his ankle at Carolina in Week 16 and sitting out the rest of the season.
That level of versatility moved Ryan to at one point tell reporters he’d never seen a first-year player handle so much so well.
But if the Saints head into 2014 healthier than they did last year, Vaccaro won’t be roving around as much and will have a more focused role on which to concentrate, coach Sean Payton said during the NFL owners meeting this week in Orlando, Fla.
“Kenny played in a lot of spots last year. I think he’ll play in less of those spots this year,” Payton said. “That vision this year will be a little ... clearer.”
Payton explained how packages that included Vaccaro in addition to two other safeties last season at first were in reaction to the raft of injuries New Orleans dealt with at outside linebacker. Will Smith and Victor Butler suffered year-ending injuries in the preseason, and the Saints went into Week 1 with three outside linebackers.
The benefits of such packages became immediately obvious. In the Sept. 8 opener at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, when the Falcons had fourth-and-3 from the Saints’ 3-yard line trailing 23-17 with less than a minute to play, New Orleans fielded safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper as well as Vaccaro.
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan fired a pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez, but Vaccaro deflected it into the arms of Harper, clinching New Orleans’ first of 12 wins last year (including the playoffs).
The Saints later kept deploying those packages in certain situations throughout the year because they were “really ... trying to get the best 11 on the field,” Payton said.
But as has been thoroughly publicized, the Saints have changed quite a bit in the offseason.
Though Smith was released, Butler remains on the team and has been rehabilitating with the goal of being available for workouts leading up to training camp. Jenkins and Harper are now on other teams, but the Saints made a significant investment in safety Jairus Byrd, who has intercepted the most passes (22) since entering the NFL in 2009.
Byrd spent his first five seasons in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills, who drafted him in the second round in 2009. But he came to the Saints as a free agent March 11 on a six-year, $54 million contract — $28 million of which is guaranteed.
“Every season you guys hear us say turnovers, turnovers, turnovers,” said Payton, whose team extended a tender offer to another safety, restricted free agent Rafael Bush, a Saint since 2012. “So you really begin to value those guys. The ball finds them. (Byrd) is one of those players that seems to be around the ball a lot.”
And so the plan, Payton suggested, is for ball-hawk Byrd and hard-hitting Vaccaro to play off each other as much as possible.
“There’s a clear vision of how we want to use them,” Payton said, “and that’s important.”
— Payton didn’t say much in response to a question about how Butler, Vaccaro and other players who were healing injuries from last year, but he did address it.
“They’re rehabbing,” he said. “All of it is going well. There’s a list of guys every morning when you go in the training room, and they’re getting their treatment. I’d say it’s going well.”
— The Washington Redskins on Friday signed a new player who has previously started at center — but it was not free agent Brian de la Puente, who has been the Saints’ first-stringer at the position since 2011.
Mike McGlynn, a free agent after starting 11 games at right guard and three games at center for Indianapolis in 2013, agreed to a deal with Washington on Friday afternoon, the team announced via Twitter.
It remains to be seen whether the news is any indicator that Washington might no longer be a landing spot for de la Puente. Regardless, Payton has confirmed New Orleans’ continued interested in retaining de la Puente.