Cam Jordan and Kenny Vaccaro could probably play a game trying to stump each other by asking about the names of a former teammates.
It would be hard to blame them if a few came up that neither recognized. Since the 2013 season, Jordan and Vaccaro have had more than 100 teammates on defense. Safety Rafael Bush is the only other survivor from that season, and even he left for a year.
Not many of the players have even been around long enough for Vaccaro and Jordan to get to know them. Since Vaccaro joined the team in 2013, they’ve only spent three seasons with 13 teammates, and three of those were used primarily on special teams. Two others spent seasons on injured reserve, and two more were primarily backups.
In other words, there hasn’t been a lot of continuity on defense during the past few years.
“A lot of turnover every year doesn’t lead to what you would call stability,” Jordan said. “Normally I say a defense plays well because you’re confident in everyone’s stability; when you have a young group, you don’t know what you have. And then when you have turnover, as we have had in the last couple years, there is no such thing as stability.”
While they’ve garnered plenty of praise locally, Jordan and Vaccaro have flown under the radar in national conversations. Both have played well for years despite the lack of continuity around them. People are now finally noticing because the team is having success.
Their achievements in previous seasons might deserve even more praise because of the degree of difficulty they faced. It’s hard to succeed when you have to build chemistry with a new set of players every year. But, even though the cast is mostly new once again this year, it’s finally starting to feel different.
“It’s starting to be to where they know exactly how I’m going to play, and that allows me to do so much more as far as wreaking havoc and plays not getting busted,” Vaccaro said. “They know exactly what I’m doing, and we don’t have to talk about as much anymore. It will be even better after another year. This is just the first year, and we’ve already kind of meshed together.”
In other words, the Saints have some stability. For a little while, it was unclear how quickly it would come. There was uncertainty when the Saints rolled out three rookie starters on defense in cornerback Marshon Lattimore, safety Marcus Williams and linebacker Alex Anzalone, but that group quickly proved worthy of the trust placed in them by the coaching staff.
Anzalone has since landed on injured reserve, but Lattimore has played like one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. He and Williams quickly have joined last year’s draft picks, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and safety Vonn Bell, plus second-year player Ken Crawley, to form a young and promising foundation.
If what the group has done during the first eight games of the season is real, then the future looks bright. After ranking near the bottom of the NFL the past three years in every meaningful category, the Saints are 15th in yards (326.6) and ninth in points allowed (19.4) per game and trending upward.
Seeing that growth has been bittersweet for Vaccaro. He loves this team. He wants to grow with them and sees the potential, but he’s a free agent after this season and knows there's a chance he might not be around to see the growth of the young core he’s craved to play with for years.
“It’s sad now, because I’m a free agent now,” Vaccaro said. “I was looking at it like, dang, I’ve had a lot of teammates since I’ve been here. Haven’t really gotten used to playing with anybody, but we’ve been winning. We’ve grown so close. I don’t want to leave — not necessarily the business side of it. The team side of it. I don’t want to leave these guys now. I’m like the older brother with a lot of young guys.”
Multiple draft misses are among the reasons the Saints struggled to get to this point. The entire 2014 draft class is already gone. The inability to select the right players led to cap problems and three consecutive 7-9 finishes.
It wasn’t long ago that it looked like this franchise would remain in its rut. But the Saints hired Jeff Ireland to oversee the draft, and coach Sean Payton believes that decision is one of the biggest reasons for the turnaround and New Orleans’ 6-2 record.
It’s hard to argue. Along with bringing in the young starters on defense, New Orleans has drafted running back Alvin Kamara, offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk and wide receiver Michael Thomas. The Saints also selected other key contributors on defense like pass rusher Trey Hendrickson and defensive tackle David Onyemata.
“I think Jeff Ireland has done an outstanding job and how we look at players, all of that was overhauled, and I think that the results are paying off fortunately for us,” Payton said.
It’s paying off big. For once, the players on defense are no longer temporary. Experience gained this season will continue to pay off down the road.
Whether Vaccaro will be part of the process moving forward remains to be seen, but at least he and Jordan can see a future for this team. When they look around the locker room, they still see a bunch of new faces that weren’t around a year ago, but in these faces, they see success and the future of the defense.
“I can’t say early on when I was here, because I was part of the future,” Jordan said. “At this point, I’m part of the present, and I hope to not only win a Super Bowl this year but to continue to grow and keep striving. If this defense can stay together and keep continuing to grow and improve, there should be no reason that we can’t be an elite defense soon.”
It’s possible that 100 more players come through the doors on defense over the next five seasons. The difference is, the list of those who stick around for three or more seasons should be filled with the names of players who serve as the backbone of the group.