INDIANAPOLIS – For many years, the safety position was one of those spots, like guard on offense, where teams would shy away from drafting one too early out of the belief that they weren’t as important and good ones could be found later in the draft.
The value of the safety in the NFL was so poorly thought of that safeties rarely went in the first round and when they did, the team doing the picking was usually panned for the selection.
But the tide began to turn in 2002 when Baltimore plucked Ed Reed out of Miami with the 24th pick in the draft. The following year, Pittsburgh snatched Troy Polamalu with the 16th selection.
That duo quickly made an impact in the league and changed the way teams viewed safeties in the league and their importance.
Heading toward this year’s NFL Draft, it’s not crazy to hear people mention a safety as a possible top 10 pick. In this case, it’s Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro generating the most buzz.
“I think people are starting to appreciate safeties more, now that tight ends are turning into freaks and controlling the middle of the field,” Vaccaro said. “So you've got to have a safety who can cover and come up and hit.”
That’s clearly a philosophy more teams have embraced since Reed and Polamalu burst on the scene. Since that 2003 draft, six safeties have gone in the top 10 of the draft, rising as high as fifth with Sean Taylor in 2004 and Eric Berry in 2010.
Now when a team drafts a safety in the first round, teams barely bat an eyelash and if they go in the top 10, nobody thinks anything of it.
That could bode well for Vaccaro who as is stands is generally regarded as the best safety in a deep class at the position.
“He's tough as nails,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “He tackles. He looks to me, I've never met him, but it looks on tape like he loves the game. I have trouble thinking he's going to get past 15 or 20 even though safeties don't go that high. I think he'll be gone in the first 15 picks.”
In St. Louis, Vaccaro going in the top 15 as Mayock believes could be bad news considering the team’s need for help at the position and depending on what they do in free agency.
Theoretically, Vaccaro would make a lot of sense were he to be available for the Rams at one of their first-round spots, No. 16 or 22.
The Rams haven’t selected a safety in the first round since grabbing Adam Archuleta at No. 20 in 2001. But Rams coach Jeff Fisher hasn’t shied away from the position and even drafted another former Texas safety with the 19th pick in the 2007 draft in Michael Griffin.
Griffin is just one example of a Texas safety to land in the first round but he’s far from the most glaring. Seattle drafted former Longhorn Earl Thomas with the 14th pick in the 2010 draft and he’s emerged as a star.
Thomas has become something of a sounding board for Vaccaro as the duo talks all the time.
“I just try to mold my game around his passion for the game,” Vaccaro said. “My freshman year I used to watch him run around the field, practicing full speed, full intensity. So I try to model my game after his.”
If that was the plan, it’s worked out quite well for Vaccaro who just put the finishing touches on an exemplary four-year career in Austin. The 6-foot, 214-pound Vaccaro started every game over the past two and a half seasons and burst on the scene as a senior in 2012.
Last year, Vaccaro posted 107 tackles with two interceptions in flashing the type of versatility that allowed him to play deep and run the alley, come up in the box and help slow the run and even come up in the slot to cover receivers.
“I played both safeties, strong and free,” Vaccaro said. “I played nickel. I played dime. In some instances I played corner. We had two great corners. But most of the time I played corner in one on ones in practice.”
Never was that versatility on better display than Texas’ Oct. 6 game against West Virginia and dynamic offensive weapon Tavon Austin.
Austin, who has turned plenty of heads at this week’s combine in his own right, scorched the Longhorns for an early 40-yard touchdown. Seeing that Austin was going to be a headache, Texas moved Vaccaro into the slot where he shadowed the smaller and faster Austin for most of the rest of the day and limited his production.
“Vaccaro’s the one where the more tape I watch, the more I like him,” Mayock said. “They played him closer to the line of scrimmage this year. He covered a bunch of slots this year, watched him cover Tavon Austin at West Virginia, and that’s rare. In today’s world, that’s rare and that’s important.”
It’s a memory Vaccaro carries with him and also one he said helped validate his ability to cover in just about any scenario.
“Me and Tavon were going at it all game,” Vaccaro said. “He's a great player. I think I did pretty good. I would say he's one of the most explosive players in the country and I'd say I was right there with him.”
Of course, Vaccaro is far from the only talented safety in this year’s draft. In fact, Mayock said he sees as many as six players who could be immediate starters from the safety class.
“I think Matt Elam is kind of a late one to mid-two, and I think Johnathan Cyprien from Florida International is a guy you ought to be looking really closely at,” Mayock said. “He had a great Senior Bowl week. I've got him as my number three safety. I think he's a guy that's going to be around somewhere in that middle to end of the second round.
“After those three, there is a little bit of a drop off, and it depends on what kind of player you like. (Eric) Reid, Zeke Motta, Phillip Thomas, J.J. Wilcox – they're all kind of third-round picks.”
That doesn’t even include others like Nevada’s Duke Williams, South Carolina’s D.J. Swearinger and Georgia’s Baccari Rambo.
None of those players seem to be generating the buzz that Vaccaro has, though. Some mock drafts have him going as high as No. 5 to Detroit. It’s a notion that not long ago many would label as foolish but not in today’s NFL and certainly not to Vaccaro himself.
“I think I can bring a lot to a team being versatile and being able to play a number of positions,” Vaccaro said. “I think I bring the most to the table.”