Saints coach Sean Payton said Monday rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro has a fractured left ankle and will have surgery Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C., making him unavailable for the regular-season finale against Tampa Bay and beyond if the Saints reach the playoffs.
Vaccaro, who is third on the team with 79 tackles, left Sunday’s 17-13 loss to Carolina late in the first quarter. He flew back to New Orleans with the team but will return to Charlotte to be operated on by orthopedic surgeon Dr. Robert Anderson.
Payton compared the injury to one that occurred to offensive tackle Bryce Harris last season. Harris was hurt against San Francisco on Nov. 25, 2012, and after having surgery, was not cleared to return until a week before the start of OTAs this spring.
“It’s a fracture in the ankle,” Payton said. “It’s fairly clean. If any of you had a chance to see how the foot was sitting, you could tell something was wrong.”
Vaccaro, a big hitter whom the Saints drafted 15th in the first round in April, has started 14 of 15 games, sitting out against San Francisco with a concussion. He had a season-high 10 tackles against Seattle with a forced fumble and made his only interception against Arizona.
Veteran safety Roman Harper received more playing time in Vaccaro’s absence. On Carolina’s winning touchdown drive in the final minute, Harper trailed receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. on a 37-yard catch-and-run to the New Orleans 28.
Vaccaro is the second starting defensive back New Orleans has lost for the season. Cornerback Jabari Greer tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee against San Francisco on Nov. 17 and was placed on injured reserve.
Greer’s replacement, Corey White, gave up the winning touchdown against Carolina on a 14-yard catch by Domenik Hixon.
Payton said the Saints sustained no other significant injuries against Carolina. He added that rookie Terron Armstead would start his second consecutive game at left tackle after giving up three sacks and committing two false-start penalties against the Panthers in his first career action after replacing Charles Brown.
“I’ve read a handful of different articles about his performance,” Payton said. “Certainly, there are growing pains, but there are a lot of things he did very well. Looking at the tape now twice, I was extremely encouraged by the way he played.”
New Orleans (10-5), a game behind Carolina in the NFC South, has to beat Tampa Bay at home this Sunday to clinch a playoff berth. If the Saints lose, they will reach the playoffs only if Arizona loses to San Francisco.