- Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer
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METAIRIE, La. -- Kenny Vaccaro finished his stellar rookie season on injured reserve after he fractured his ankle during a pileup in Week 16. The hard-hitting New Orleans Saints safety also suffered two concussions last year, one of which sidelined him for the following game.
But now that he's back fully healthy during OTAs, Vaccaro insisted Thursday that he doesn't plan to alter his aggressive style, which he admittedly described as "reckless."
"I'll probably do that the rest of my career. You can't really prevent it. What am I gonna do, not hit anymore?" Vaccaro said. "The way I play, a lot of guys are like that. I mean, I'm reckless. I like to bring the physical aspect to the game."
Vaccaro said he is actually more deterred by the idea of avoiding fines for certain hits than avoiding injuries. And he also said he would pass up on a big hit if there was an opportunity for an interception instead.
"But I'm not gonna ever slow down just because I knock myself out," Vaccaro said.
Vaccaro specified that he doesn't feel as though he has been tackling a certain way that needs to be corrected. He pointed out that all three of his injuries last year were accidental -- a collision with teammate Keenan Lewis while tracking a ball in the air; colliding with the knee of Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten; and getting rolled up in a pile on a run play.
However, Vaccaro did admit that he would try to play through a concussion if he felt he was able -- just as he tried to put his ankle back in place and walk on it last year before he realized he couldn't and signaled for the trainers.
"There's a lot of guys that get concussions during the game that don't say anything," Vaccaro said. "If you get knocked out, obviously it's gonna be visible on TV, but a lot of guys will get their bell rung and you won't even say anything. I'm sure there's a lot more concussions in the NFL that go on during the season than everybody knows about.
"The Dallas game when I hit Witten's knee, I was trying to walk and I was stumbling. That's the only reason I went off the field, because I couldn't walk. That's just the nature of the game, and I think when you sign your contract, you know what you're getting into."
Perhaps some of Vaccaro's approach is bravado. And perhaps some of it is indeed reckless, considering all of the increased awareness on the dangers of concussions that exists today.
Regardless, that kind of blunt talk is typical of Vaccaro, who has always been pretty unfiltered when talking about himself and his ambitions.
Vaccaro was the same way Thursday while talking about his desire to be the best safety in the NFL.
He doesn't plan on slowing down in that sense, either.
"Everybody thinks about it. I mean, guys are gonna lie and say that they don't look at that stuff. But you look at it, you want to be on ESPN, you want analysts to say you're the No. 1 safety. And that's my goal," Vaccaro said.
Vaccaro, who finished third in the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year voting last year, has been lavished with praise. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan called Vaccaro the best "overall" safety in the NFL last year because he could be used in so many different ways. And ESPN scouting insider Matt Williamson described him as an "eight-or-10 Pro Bowl type of player."
But Vaccaro said he's still plenty motivated despite the early hype.
"I just feel like I always find something to drive me," said Vaccaro, who finished last year with 79 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble and one sack. "There's always something on ESPN. Or the top 100 [on NFL Network], I'm not on there, why should I be that confident? Pro Bowl, I wasn't on there. I didn't get Rookie of the Year.
"So until I'm 10 years in the game and I'm a Hall of Famer like Champ Bailey, I'll just keep playing like this."
Vaccaro, who played all over the field at safety, cornerback and linebacker at times last year, said Ryan plans to use him in just two or three spots this year instead of four or five.
That suits Vaccaro, who said he'd rather be great at one position than really good at a lot of positions. But Vaccaro said he does love the way Ryan has trusted him so much to heap so much on his plate -- including calling most of the signals for the secondary.
Vaccaro said he would love to take on the role of "quarterback" of the defense -- though he said that it's not exactly needed with so many veteran leaders in a secondary that now includes the likes of Bailey, Lewis and safety Jairus Byrd.
"I really didn't feel like a rookie at the end of last year," said Vaccaro, who said one of the worst things about his ankle injury was that it cut into the start of his offseason, as well.
"I was ready to get back to work and progress and to make that big sophomore leap that I wanted to make. Because I feel like that's the biggest year that you grow in the NFL, that's what a lot of people told me."
Vaccaro said he added about five pounds of muscle, bringing him up to around 222 pounds this offseason. He said he also made the most of his downtime by studying film of other top safeties.
One of them is Earl Thomas, a fellow former Texas Longhorn whom Vaccaro considers the best in the NFL -- for now. But Vaccaro said, "I want to be better than him. And he knows that, too, and we drive each other."
Another is new teammate Byrd, who was a three-time Pro Bowler with the Buffalo Bills before the Saints made a big splash by signing him in free agency.
"Even Jairus, he's told me straight up when he first got here, ‘I want you to be better than me when I leave here,' and I think genuinely he meant that," Vaccaro said. "He genuinely told me, ‘When I leave here, I'm gonna give you all the tools to be the best safety in the NFL, because I know you can do it.' And that's my goal.
"I really truly believe he wants us to be the best tandem in the NFL."