NEW ORLEANS — Safety Kenny Vaccaro was benched during the New Orleans Saints’ blowout loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday amid reports that the Saints may be looking to trade him.
Vaccaro, a first-round draft pick in 2013, said he was surprised by the benching — despite his admitted struggles in the Saints’ week 1 loss at Minnesota. But coach Sean Payton explained, “Listen, we need to get more consistent play, and that dates back to last weekend.”
Vaccaro’s benching followed reports by both CBS and NFL Network that the Saints were discussing the fifth-year pro in trade talks this week — although Payton brushed off the trade question by saying, “It’s not unusual early in the season for teams to call about” players at positions where teams have depth.
“I know Gronk had two catches on me, really great catches, and that was about it. That’s all that really happened. The next thing I know, I’m sitting next to Coach Payton.”
Another source downplayed the trade reports with a similar explanation — though Vaccaro is in the final year of his contract, so it can’t be ruled out as a possibility if the Saints aren’t expecting to spend big money on him this offseason. Vaccaro said the trade reports are “a little bit of a distraction, but at the same time, you gotta block that stuff out, be a pro and understand we’re trying to win a game.”
Vaccaro said he hadn’t gotten an explanation for his demotion yet in the aftermath of Sunday’s 36-20 loss. Just before he was benched Sunday, he intercepted a pass — but it was nullified because he was flagged for holding tight end Rob Gronkowski, whom he guarded for most of Sunday’s game.
“I know Gronk had two catches on me, really great catches, and that was about it. That’s all that really happened. The next thing I know, I’m sitting next to Coach Payton,” said Vaccaro, who was not covering Gronkowski during his 53-yard touchdown catch-and-run in the first quarter.
“I took full responsibility [for last week's struggles]. I had bad eyes on a couple plays, and I took responsibility for that. I didn’t know that was gonna overflow into this game until all of a sudden I was out,” Vaccaro said. “Listen, I’ve been here for the last four years, and we haven’t played up to par on defense. And I understand how it goes. Obviously I’ve got to be better in my preparation, gotta be more consistent. …
“I didn’t understand this game what happened at all. But at the same time, I take full responsibility for that and just gotta keep on, gotta keep pushing.”
Vaccaro, 26, expressed his desire this summer to finally crack into that Pro Bowl caliber after a career filled with highs and lows. Instead, his rollercoaster career path has hit another sharp turn.
Vaccaro began his career by finishing third in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting in 2013 on a Saints playoff team that used him as a versatile chess piece as a safety, nickel corner and pseudo-linebacker. But he suffered a broken fibula late that season. Then he was temporarily demoted late in the 2014 season while battling inconsistent play.
Vaccaro’s play improved in 2015 and 2016, and he was arguably having his best season last year, with two interceptions and two forced fumbles. But then his season was cut short by a four-game suspension for a positive Adderall test (a substance banned by the NFL).
Vaccaro was replaced in Sunday’s lineup by second-year pro Vonn Bell, who started 14 games as a rookie last year. Bell himself lost his starting job this summer to rookie second-round pick Marcus Williams. The Saints also have a veteran backup with starting experience in Rafael Bush.
The Saints have allowed 777 passing yards through two weeks this season — the most in franchise history, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and the sixth-most of any team since the NFL-AFL merger.
Opponents are 14-of-16 for 398 yards against the Saints on passes thrown 15 or more yards downfield — with more touchdowns (3) than incompletions.