Texas safety Vaccaro becomes Longhorns’ latest first-round pick

Posted Thursday, Apr. 25, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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During last month’s Pro Day session on campus, Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro posed for a group photo with several former Longhorns defensive backs currently drawing NFL paychecks.

Vaccaro officially joined their ranks Thursday when he was selected by the New Orleans Saints with the 15th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Vaccaro, a Brownwood native and who led the team in tackles (107) last season, became the 11th defensive back from Texas to join the active NFL ranks, most of any Big 12 school. He is the first Longhorn taken in the first round since 2010, when Seattle selected safety Earl Thomas.

Known for his big hits, Vaccaro showed ability as both a blitzer (4 tackles for losses, 4 quarterback hurries) and a cover man (2 interceptions, 5 pass breakups) as a senior last season. He was one of the players brought in by the Dallas Cowboys for a pre-draft workout but was taken before the Cowboys were on the clock with the 18th pick, which they traded to San Francisco.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper, Jr. described Vaccaro as “a very physical player” who draws comparisons to Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu. Vaccaro (6-foot, 214 pounds) said New Orleans was the last team he visited before the draft and he had “a good feeling” that the Saints would select him, if given the chance.

“I have dreamed of this my whole life. I’m excited to … be a Saint,” Vaccaro said. “I will help that team. I’m real versatile. I don’t think I have many limitations.”

Vaccaro was one of three players selected from Big 12 schools during Thursday’s first round, but not the first. That distinction went to Oklahoma offensive tackle Lane Johnson (6-foot-6, 296 pounds), who began his college career as a junior-college quarterback and went to Philadelphia with the fourth pick.

Rounding out the first-round picks from Big 12 or Texas colleges were Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel (No. 2, Jacksonville), West Virginia receiver/kick returner Tavon Austin (No. 8, St. Louis) and Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden (No. 12, Oakland).

Johnson, who also spent time at tight end and defensive end before finding a home at left tackle with the Sooners, has been climbing the draft boards of NFL teams throughout the spring because of his efforts at the NFL Combine and during private workouts.

Of the three left tackles taken with the top four picks in Thursday’s first round — Eric Fisher (No. 1, Kansas City), Joeckel and Johnson — multiple NFL analysts consider Johnson the player with the greatest potential because of his athleticism. Despite weighing almost 300 pounds, he’s been timed at 4.7 in the 40-yard dash.

“Lane Johnson probably has the highest ceiling of all three of them,” said Mike Mayock, draft analyst for the NFL Network. “You’re talking about someone who could develop into a Pro Bowl player and be one for the next 10 years.”

Because of Johnson’s limited background at the position, ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay called him “a risk” compared to more polished players. But one worth taking.

“If he develops into the player that he’s trending towards, Johnson’s got a chance to be one of the top tackles in the NFL,” McShay said.

Kiper said Austin’s skill set, based on speed and elusiveness, “translates tremendously well” to today’s NFL. The Rams traded up eight spots with Buffalo to select him.

“I think he’s going to be an electrifying, dynamic play,” Kiper said. “I think Tavon is going to have a heck of a career.”

Hayden, who suffered a career-threatening injury in November when he tore the main vein to his heart during a collision in practice, called it “a dream come true” that he underwent surgery and still emerged as a first-round pick.

“It’s crazy how God works, man. It’s truly crazy,” Hayden said. “I was really depressed [after the surgery]. I didn’t even think I would walk again. I wasn’t even thinking about football, but the doctor told me that there was a chance. I came a long way. I just continued to trust in God and trust in his plan for me and it turned out good.”

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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