The New Orleans Saints suffered through a dismal 2012 season, due in no small part to a horrific defense that ranked dead last in the National Football League.
The Saints hope that defense will improve this year under first-year coordinator Rob Ryan, and the team took steps to aid in that transition in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, selecting Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro with the 15th overall pick.
The question now becomes what the Saints intend to do with the 6'0" 214-pounder.
It would appear that even the Saints aren't exactly sure how they're going to utilize their shiny new toy, at least judging from the recent comments made by head coach Sean Payton to Nakia Hogan of The New Orleans Times-Picayune.
We are excited we were able to get a player we had put in our cloud and spent a lot of time on. With Kenny, clearly he's a guy we felt very comfortable with. I think he is versatile enough to play either one of the safety positions, and certainly a guy who can handle some of the nickel.
There's good reason for the Saints to be a bit unsure as to where Vaccaro might fit best for them.
The Saints' pass defense was awful last year, allowing nearly 293 yards per game through the air. As the following table shows, that was due in large part to abysmal play from the safety position.
Rankings courtesy of Pro Football Focus.
Mind you, these rankings are out of 88 possible players. Harper and Jenkins were literally the two worst players at their position in the NFL in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus.
For his part, Vaccaro told Hogan he's willing to help the Saints in any way that he can, and he feels his versatility as a player will be an asset in that regard.
I'm excited to come down there and play. I'm just real versatile. I can do different things. I don't think I have many limitations. I can cover, and I can run support. I think I can bring that to the team.
That versatility will indeed come in handy, because in this writer's opinion, it's not as easy for the Saints as just saying "Kenny Vaccaro is the starting free (or strong) safety," and plugging him into that spot.
They need to move Vaccaro around.
Malcolm Jenkins, a converted cornerback, isn't very good in run support, so in base defense and short yardage packages, the Saints could look to line up Harper at strong safety, with Vaccaro manning the free safety spot.
Meanwhile, Harper is a huge liability in coverage. When teams spread the Saints out, or in obvious passing situations, New Orleans could then yank Harper, slide Vaccaro over to strong safety (where he played the majority of his time with the Longhorns) and get Jenkins back onto the field at free safety.
In fact, in certain passing situations, it might even behoove the Saints to leave all three safeties on the field. Vaccaro could man the strong safety spot, Jenkins at free safety and Harper could function as a nickel linebacker in a similar fashion to Bryan Scott (a converted safety) with the Buffalo Bills.
Granted, as safeties go, Harper is terrible in coverage, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't have a better chance of covering a tight end over the middle than Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne or Jonathan Vilma.
The Saints could even slide Jenkins or Vaccaro to the slot and then adjust the safeties accordingly.
The point is that it would be folly for the Saints to pigeonhole Vaccaro at one position. In today's pass-wacky NFL, the line between free safeties and strong safeties has become blurred. On many teams, those names are little more than that: a name.
It's unfortunate for in-the-box "thumpers" like Harper (who are going the way of the dinosaur), but luckily for the Saints, Kenny Vaccaro very much fits the mold of the new-age safety in the NFL, a player capable of wearing many hats.
Hopefully, Payton and Ryan realize they'll avail themselves of Vaccaro's versatility, and the team will get the most bang for their buck from their first pick in the 2013 draft.