Dean Pees defense is a switching scheme that matches personnel with the offense to become more flexible in its coverages and blitzes. His defense thrives with multiple safeties who are both big and physical enough to play in the box or blitz while also having the range to drop deep and play man. In his time in Tennessee, Pees’ safeties were all between 5’11” and 6’1” and 209 and 214 pounds — capable of playing the “big nickel” or “big dime” role. Terry Fontenot has developed a “type” this offseason of free agents he’s willing to shell out precious cap dollars on — bargain, one-year veteran deals. The answer for both sets of criteria could be Kenny Vacarro.
The Titans released Vacarro as a cap casualty a month ago, saving $6.9 million after recording 83 tackles and 6 TFLs last year. Since signing with the team in 2018, he started in all 42 of his appearances but most recently played in 13 games last year, forcing five pass breakups and one fumble. The eight-year veteran has ten career interceptions and over 600 tackles. In his time with Dean Pees, Vacarro graded out as an elite run defender and pass rusher but was average in coverage — 2018-2019.
Not only does he fit Pees’ scheme as a thumper, but Vaccaro is also a smart leader with a no-nonsense kind of attitude. “I came in and put my head down and went to work. I think a coach like Dean Pees appreciated that old-school, not-talking-too-much approach,” Vaccaro said back in 2019. “It seemed like from the very jump he believed in me. I felt like one of his guys within a couple of days. He’s won Super Bowls and coached great players. Some of the things he’d say about me and tell me gave me great confidence.”
Fontenot signed Erik Harris sometime ago, but the addition of Vaccaro doesn’t mean the two can’t play together. They aren’t perfect compliments of each other, but the Falcons need more than just one body at safety. Signing Vaccaro wouldn’t mean the pair would be the starters but instead safeties #2 and #3. The former Titans’ safety excels playing in the box where he can support the run and offer another capable blitzer, while Harris is much less reliable in the run game but is more impressive in coverage.
The similarities between the two veterans are tangible, per the Vaccaro quote from 2019. Both are savvy players whose intangibles are some of their strongest attributes. “The more you look at Erik Harris, the more you look at, he’s a glue guy,” Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said. “Not only for the entire team, but specifically in the back end… He gets people lined up, he’s the best communicator we have back there, and he’s one of our top special teams players. So when you look at Erik Harris, I think a lot of times he gets underrated. He doesn’t get the respect he deserves.” Though the two don’t compliment each other perfectly, Pees needs multiple safeties at his disposal to accommodate his nickel and dime looks.
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