The proliferation of the spread offense in the NFL has changed the way teams are scouting defenders. The majority of NFL defenses have gotten quicker and (sometimes) smaller to account for the quick passing games. As former Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage explained to The Boston Globe‘s Greg Bedard:
“The game in college has become so space-oriented that these kids now are more apt to be cover players than be point-of-attack players.” He furthered comment, “Most of the defensive players now are run-around, speed-oriented players. They’ve gotten smaller: smaller edge rushers, smaller linebackers because they have to cover a lot of ground in space. You have smaller safeties because they’re having to line up with the third and fourth wideout in coverage. It’s really a fascinating study.”
Phil Savage is right: the college game has become very space-oriented, which has created hybrid defenders, such as safeties. Hybrid safeties, which play the “Star” position, have particularly become popular because of their versatility to line up all over the field and play both in reverse and downhill.
One draft prospect that fits the hybrid safety position is senior Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro, who checks in at roughly 6‘1“ and 218 pounds.
Vaccaro is an ideal, modern day safety because he can line up in various areas on the field and execute his coverage assignments as well as pull the trigger on his run-pass keys in run support.
Whether the coverage assignments are playing man coverage in the slot against ultra-quick receivers such as West Virginia University’s Tavon Austin as he did in week 5, or as a single or split field safety aligned 18-22 yards from the line of scrimmage as seen in previous games, Vaccaro can do the job.
Simply put: Kenny Vaccaro has the ideal physical talent to become a spread stopper. But it doesn’t stop there; he also plays with strong technique, which is a big reason why he’s been so good for Texas for four years.
The majority of Vaccaro’s snaps were in the slot, where he lined up across the aforementioned Tavon Austin and played in man coverage nearly the entire night. He was isolated one-on-one against Austin and also received safety help while playing with man-under technique.
Man-Under is another name for the Cover 2-man coverage concept, which implies two safeties splitting the field in halves as the underneath defenders mark their assignments in man coverage.
In Man-Under coverage, Vaccaro plays with inside technique and has to mirror the receiver, which is a difficult task from the slot despite having help over the top from the safeties.
The reason why this is difficult is because the receiver has a two-way go at the line of scrimmage, which essentially puts the defensive back on an island. The receiver can go left or right and leave the defender in trail position in a matter of steps.
To avoid constantly getting beaten, Vaccaro can choose to jam and mirroring the receiver to disrupt his release off the line of scrimmage and route development as he did against West Virginia.
Vaccaro doesn’t always have to jam the receiver, however. He can also simply mirror the receivers release, whether it’s inside or out, by not opening his hips up too early, which would give the receiver a clean path to develop his route. Vaccaro did a good job of not giving the receiver the free path on multiple occasions against West Virginia because of several reasons, most notably his technique, physicality and light feet.
Further, as noted earlier, Kenny Vaccaro can play as a deep single or split-field safety without a problem because he can cover ground with range and has good enough ball skills to track the ball in the air.
Whether he is a deep safety or aligned in the slot, he has proven to be an asset in run support by quickly filling the alley (running lane) with aggressiveness and closing speed.
He is quick to recognize whether it’s read and run by reading his high-hat/low-hat key, which implies run or pass. If it’s a high-hat read, Vaccaro drops back in coverage because it suggests pass while a low-hat read tells him it’s run.
Moreover, he also shows an understanding of his responsibility of setting the edge, which creates an alley (running lane) that his teammate can fill when the running back is funneled to the inside, and getting off of blocks to get involved.
The only knock in run support against Vaccaro is that he sometimes takes too narrow of angles in run support opposed to intersecting angles that give the ball carrier a one-way go. All prospects have their faults and this is not a major concern of Vaccaro’s because it can be corrected.
Because of Kenny Vaccaro’s overall talent, technique and versatility in coverage as well as his ability to play sound run defense, he is the ideal defender for the recent spread formation outburst in the NFL. He is a fit for various teams, such as the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Green Bay Packers and New York Jets.