Not only is Kenny Vaccaro an upgrade on Johnathan Cyprien, but he’ll maximize the rest of the Tennessee Titans secondary as well.
The Tennessee Titans were one of the first teams to be delivered a training camp blow as starting strong safety Johnathan Cyprien suffered a torn ACL nearly one week ago. They quickly took advantage of the unique free-agent depth at safety, signing former New Orleans Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro. Not only was this signing an impressive pivot, but Vaccaro’s a notceable upgrade on Cyprien’s one-dimensional and old school skill set.
Their two-year rebuild of the secondary was seemingly complete until Cyprien’s injury. Cyprien was a free-agent splurge along with cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler. Recent drafts picks Kevin Byard and Adoree’ Jackson represent higher upside players, with Byard already establishing himself as an elite All-Pro ballhawk.
General manager Jon Robinson built this unit in a traditional fashion. Byard’s the prototypical ball-hawk, with Cyprien as a finisher near the line of scrimmage. There wasn’t any versatility with Cyprien because he’s essentially been a box linebacker his entire career, even back to Florida International.
The addition of the 27-year-old Vaccaro was only possible due to a set of circumstances that has led to several higher-profile safeties being displaced until recently. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported the Titans also tried to work out former San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid, but the fact he missed two flights made their decision to sign Vaccaro a no-brainer. But the market for safeties was ice cold for most of the offseason, with only Tyrann Matthieu, Ricardo Allen and Jaquiski Tartt cashing in on new deals.
Vaccaro’s not dramatically different from Cyprien, but is better at what has actually mattered in the NFL throughout both of their careers. While Cyprien’s logged 118 more tackles in just two more games since they both joined the league in 2013, Vaccaro’s been making significantly more impactful plays in a larger variety of roles.
Vaccaro’s insertion represents more versatility and a higher upside for the unit. Cyprien produced just two interceptions, 16 passes defensed, and three sacks in five seasons. Vaccaro has eight career interceptions, 29 passes defensed, and 7.5 sacks in that same timeframe.
Of course the numbers only help show some of the picture. Cyprien’s usage and ball production is alarmingly telling of his value in a pass-happy league, and the AFC South is welcoming back Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Like Cyprien, Vaccaro’s going to be around the line of scrimmage often. He’s a solid tackler who excels at working downhill, so there’s little dropoff there. He’s much more confident in his body and using closing speed while facing the ball, similar to Cyprien.
Where they differ in this role is their playmaking. Playing linebacker is like being a trained robot. Players read their keys, and make their decisions off their two or three initial reads. When guys appear massively out of position to the naked eye, we can’t always assume their blew their assignment. Sometimes their responsibility was to cover a singular gap.
Both players are capable and even advanced compared to their peers in this regard. They’re physical presences. But Vaccaro is considerably more comfortable having to diverge in this role, and that’s been a big factor in Vaccaro matching Cyprien’s career sack and interception total in one-year.
Tennessee won’t have Vaccaro blitz as often as the Saints did if they’re going to use him exactly the same but it’s not safe to assume that’ll be the case. The Titans rarely relied on Cyprien to create pressure, and the addition of second-round pick Harold Landry is another legitimate threat. There will be more open A and B gaps for Vaccaro to sprint into than what he ever saw with the Saints.
Vaccaro will not only be a better fit for a modern, versatile defensive backfield, but he stands to benefit from a hybrid role amongst players who can maximize his skill set.
In New Orleans, he was in a rotation that left him as the slot cornerback much too often. The results were alarming, as he allowed over 300 yards in man coverage, per my charting for the Cornerback Handbook. He can handle it occasionally, but isn’t fleet-footed enough to cover anything but tight ends and big slot receivers who lack above-average quickness.
It would be stunning if head coach Mike Vrabel and defensive backs guru Kerry Coombs expose Vaccaro to that situation on even 30 percent of snaps. The presence of both Ryan and Butler give the team two capable slot corners, specifically Ryan being a more natural option inside when the team employs five defensive backs.
Ryan was overmatched in base formations as a boundary corner, allowing 53 percent of targets to be completed for 232 on just 32 targets in man coverage, per my own charting. But in the slot, he ranked no lower than 21st in the league, and settled in as average in most significant coverage stats that I accumulated for the Corner Handbook last season. His value is boosted by Butler’s presence, and that in turn will protect Vaccaro as the latter can play half-field assignments or drop down into the box.
The biggest weakness that Vrabel showed in Houston as their defensive coordinator was dealing with an under-talented secondary. His front seven was as good as it could’ve been considering the rash of injuries, as young players showed development throughout the season.
But the back-end crumbled, with cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Kevin Johnson looking lost and uncoordinated. Maybe that was Joseph finally aging, and Johnson’s string of injuries limiting him.
It’s probably not a coincidence Robinson vastly outbid the competition for Butler to bring stability to the second cornerback job, though. The Titans can play simplistic Cover 1 and Cover 2 man assignments with their secondary talent, and be reasonably confident they won’t be shredded as their pass-rushers get after the quarterback.
The diminished safety spending this year, the strong 2017 class of safety prospects, Vaccaro’s track record of missed games, and recent rule changes all factored into a talented player falling into the Titans’ lap when they desperately needed a stopgap. They were able to do better than a stopgap with Vaccaro, setting this defense up for a significantly better performance in 2018.