Tennessee Titans safety Kenny Vaccaro is playing not with a chip on his shoulder, but with thankfulness for his opportunity.
In the NFL, the time for teams to acquire players is between the months of March and May. Within that span falls the NFL Draft and the initial window of free agency. Most significant trades also take place during that period.
After that, available talent is sparse. About all that’s left to find during the summer months are veteran retreads, undrafted rookies, and other players that are deemed to be “street free agents.”
This is why the success of safety Kenny Vaccaro, who the Tennessee Titans signed mid-Training Camp on August 4, is so surprising. He has become a crucial member of the NFL’s best scoring defense.
Vaccaro’s time with the New Orleans Saints, the team that drafted him in the first round back in 2013, came to an end when he was placed on injured reserve late in 2017 with a severe groin injury. The team opted to not re-sign him.
Vaccaro spent most of his offseason on the couch, team-less. He had become, in the eyes of many NFL talent evaluators, a castoff. There was no meteoric push from a handful of NFL teams to throw a massive contract into Vaccaro’s face.
Kenny Vaccaro tackles James White for the loss and he got….JACKED UP!!!! pic.twitter.com/EyqiOgrSXJ
— Johnny Kinsley (@Brickwallblitz) November 12, 2018
His response to this adversity was the opposite of bitterness. “There’s been a lot of great players to not sign with teams and New Orleans, especially,” said Vaccaro of his offseason mindset. “They’ve let go of a lot of players. [Rams WR Brandin] Cooks is on his third team and got a max deal, then you’ve got guys like [Eagles RB] Darren Sproles or [Packers TE] Jimmy Graham, [Eagles S] Malcolm Jenkins—he went from ‘we’re not signing you back’ to All-Pro.”
Instead of falling into a trap, like many players in Vaccaro’s situation would have done, he took the approach of patience. “I had other offers,” Vaccaro said. “I just didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to go anywhere that I didn’t feel was a good situation because I knew I was going to have to sign a one-year deal, so I just wanted to come in somewhere I could fit, play a big role.”
When the opportunity to join the Titans presented itself following Johnathan Cyprien’s brutal, season-ending knee injury, Vaccaro jumped. “Coming to a team like the Titans, Dean Pees’ defense, you get to play next to Byard, Logan Ryan, Adoree’ Jackson, Malcolm Butler, it’s kind of the perfect situation.”
It would be fair to say that Vaccaro took the team by storm. He spent a vast majority of his waking hours over the following weeks at the Titans’ facility diving deep into the playbook and learning the new system. Each day after practice, Vaccaro could be found working alongside his teammates in the secondary to get back into game shape. It was nearly impossible to get an interview with him during that time simply because of how dedicated and honed in he was.
Just four days after Vaccaro joined the Titans, he suited up and played in the team’s first preseason game. He played 24 snaps in the game. It wasn’t too long after that Vaccaro was firmly entrenched as the team’s starting strong safety.
Three months later, Vaccaro is playing some of the best football of his career. He has returned to the form that earned him high praise during the early portions of his career with the Saints.
“Kenny has played a lot of football before he got here,” Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said of Vaccaro. “And I think he understands that the most important thing to fitting in in this league is on the field, not done in the locker room or in the media, it’s about gaining the respect of your teammates on the field by how you practice and how you play. That’s something he’s done when he’s been healthy.”
Vaccaro knows the adversity he’s faced in the past helped prepare him for the moment.
“I had a couple different D-coordinators [in New Orleans], played on some not-so-good defenses—we were dead last a couple years. A lot of adversity, so when you come to a team like this, it’s a smooth transition.”
The sixth-year safety was also quick to point out that his driving force this season has not been a “chip” on his shoulder, but rather his thankfulness for the opportunity and love of football.
“When I signed here, I grabbed one bag and came up here. I was blessed, my fiancé and my mom drove my truck and all my stuff in it. It was a quick process, and I think after three practices I was starting.
“I played my first game three or four days after I was here. I was ready, I was just thankful to stay healthy enough and be in shape and have the mental capacity to learn the whole defense in a couple of days.”
By playing with thankfulness instead of bitterness, Kenny Vaccaro has been able to play disciplined football and prove his worth to both fans and teammates alike. If he keeps up his high level of play, he won’t be signing a “prove it” deal this offseason.
Cover image: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today Sports