It was reported Wednesday that Texas free safety Kenny Vaccaro is visiting with the Carolina Panthers prior to the draft. Along with Jonathan Cyprien, the two top safety prospects have now met with the organization. Unlike other positions where it's simply one player vs. another, the safety spot is a lot more difficult to predict. These are two prospects with very different games, though either would help immediately.
Up to this point the plan has been to move Charles Godfrey to the starting FS spot. Struggling in an aggressive role, switching him back would allow him to display the ball skills that resulted in five interceptions in 2010. While the Panthers attempted to bolster their safeties over the last decade, their attempts to select cornerbacks and covert them was largely a disaster. Lacking the ability to play at the line of scrimmage, and failing in coverage -- they were the definition of 'jack of all trades, master of none'.
Widely regarded as the nation's top safety, Vaccaro was the heart of a terrible Texas defense. His situation is not dissimilar to Luke Kuechly's in 2012 -- a rose among thorns.
Comparisons to Kuechly continue. Vaccaro is regarded as a solid defender, but not a difference maker. He's not the player to deliver the huge hit, or be a ball hawk in the secondary -- however, he is the kind of player who could be plugged into the free safety spot for a decade. He also offers schematic versatility. While he projects to be the last line of defense, he has an ability to do the dirty work up around the line of scrimmage -- and can shoot the gap when needed, being a nuisance in the backfield.
Unlike last year's rookie of the year, he doesn't display the off-the-charts football IQ. Far from a complete prospect, he takes bad angles at times, gets prone to playing overly-aggressive, and could struggle against speedy deep-threat receivers. In taking Vaccaro, the Panthers would be committing to return to Charles Godfrey at the strong safety spot. This isn't an ideal situation, but in two years it could be a moot point if Dave Gettleman parts ways with the veteran safety.
Cyprien is the safety the Carolina Panthers could use right now. A strong, hard-hitting player with a knack for getting turnovers, he would immediately slot in with Charles Godfrey and push the Panthers towards their end goal.
Almost unheard of prior to the senior bowl, it was a case of Cyprien making the most of his opportunity to show off for scouts -- and now he's a lock to be selected in the draft's first two days. He closes well in space, hits with full force, and has the versatility to move into either safety spot if needed.
Both Vaccaro and Cyprien are incomplete projects, but in order to excel at the next level Cyprien needs more work. It goes beyond the competition leap from FIU to the NFL, and instead pertains to the way he engages on defense. Often he hits high, rather than take to the legs -- a hallmark of Charles Godfrey's game. His play recognition leaves a lot to be desired, and he tends to get beaten in man coverage. Until these gaps are filled, he could be a liability if asked to cover slot receivers and tight ends.
Where do they fit?
Ultimately it's a case of patching a hole right now, or patching a hole in a year or two. Jonathan Cyprien offers immediate help, and has the upside to develop into an excellent NFL strong safety. Meanwhile, Kenny Vaccaro is a safety blanket. He might not make any huge plays, but as a last line of defense he'll stop passes like last year's Atlanta debacle.
The Panthers need two new safeties to achieve their goal. Charles Godfrey is interchangeable, but carries a huge price tag starting in 2014. Meanwhile Carolina has no good option at SS -- and need to find an upgrade immediately.