Will Vaccaro be the Rams' man?
3 hours ago • By Jim Thomas

As much as the Rams need help on offense in the NFL draft, it’s safety first when it comes to the defense. With that in mind, can the Rams afford to pass if they’re staring at safety Kenny Vaccaro of Texas when the pick at No. 16 overall?

Not that he’s going to make anyone forget Ronnie Lott, or even his Longhorns predecessor — Earl Thomas — but Vaccaro is widely regarded as the best safety in the draft.

There are some who think Vaccaro won’t even be there at 16. Even though he doesn’t have top-end speed, Vaccaro does everything pretty well whether it’s force fumbles, make tackles for loss or cover receivers. He even has covered West Virginia wide receiver phenom Tavon Austin in the slot.

“I think (the Rams) have to take him,” said one veteran NFC scout, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I’d take Vaccaro. I think he’s probably not as good as Earl Thomas but he’s up there. He’s a legitimate guy.”

Both Rams starting safeties from a year ago are gone: strong safety Quintin Mikell was cut and free safety Craig Dahl signed with NFC West rival San Francisco in free agency. Holdover Darian Stewart, a forgotten man last season, probably can fill Mikell’s shoes.

“He’s the same guy as Mikell,” the scout said.

So in a passing league, and in a read-option division, a rangy free safety who can take care of the back end yet cover ground quickly is ideal. Can Vaccaro be that guy?

Maybe, maybe not says Corey Chavous, the former Rams safety who puts out his own draft publication at NFL Draft :: NBA Draft :: MLB Draft :: Sports Videos.

Besides tape study, Chavous said he watched Vaccaro in person against West Virginia (and Austin), and against Missouri.

“I think the thing that’s concerned some people is he hasn’t run quite as well in the postseason as you expected him to,” Chavous said. “But I think he plays faster and carries his pads well.”

Chavous said Vaccaro has displayed some inconsistency as a tackler. He cited a missed tackle against Oklahoma State running back Joseph Randle that ended up going for a score, and a couple of missed tackles in the matchup with Austin and West Virginia.

But one thing about this safety class — if the Rams decide against Vaccaro, or he’s gone, they have plenty of alternatives. It’s a deep position in this year’s draft. Vaccaro, Florida International’s Jonathan Cyprien and Florida’s Matt Elam generally are considered the top three safeties and it’s possible all three could go in the first round.

More than one scout has likened Elam to Blaine Bishop, which is worth noting because Bishop played safety for years for Rams coach Jeff Fisher when Fisher was in Tennessee.

“Elam’s not necessarily a lengthy player but I think he plays bigger than his size,” Chavous said. “Sometimes he’s gets a little bit out of control but I think for the most part he plays with the energy and feistiness you want at that position. He’s just a football player. He believes his eyes and reacts.”

Interestingly, the Rams aren’t believed to have brought in any of those three for pre-draft visits. In fact, the only safety known to have visited Rams Park is speedy and hard-hitting Shamarko Thomas of Syracuse, who might be a second-rounder or third-rounder in the draft.

The safety with the best ball skills probably is Phillip Thomas of Fresno State. He led the nation in interceptions last year (eight), three of which he returned for touchdowns. He also had four sacks and forced four fumbles en route to being Fresno State’s first consensus all-American.

“He has what it takes in terms of the eye speed at the safety position, being able to play a little faster,” Chavous said. “He’s real smooth. He’s been coached by a Pro Bowler in Tim McDonald out that at school.”

That is another interesting twist because McDonald, the former St. Louis and Arizona Cardinal, has a son T.J. who’s a safety draft prospect out of Southern California.

The knock against T.J. McDonald is that he’s not very physical even though some believe he’s better suited for strong safety than free.

Back to Phillips Thomas: his biggest inconsistency is his tackling.

“Flailing at the ankle and thighs of players when he’s getting ready to wrap,” Chavous said. “But he’s a decent blitzer. He’s a guy that gets into the backfield. They move him around; you have to kind of locate him on the field.”

Despite his excellent range, Thomas didn’t run all that well at the NFL scouting combine (4.65 in the 40), although he did better at his pro day.

“Productivity-wise, making plays on the ball, you won’t find anybody with better ball skills in this year’s class,” Chavous said.

Farther down in the draft are safety prospects such as Nevada’s Duke Williams, South Carolina’s D.J. Swearinger and J.J. Wilcox of Georgia Southern. Wilcox spent most of his college career playing wide receiver and slotback, and wasn’t moved to safety until 2012. But he still handled the football last season, averaging a hefty 25.2 yards on 31 punt returns.

The Rams have shown a fair amount of interest in Williams, meeting with him for a suite visit at the combine.

He’s on the small side, at 5-11, 203, but has good straightline speed, good coverage skills and packs a wallop as a tackler.

“There’s so many players at the position that warrant value,” Chavous said. “You’ve got a lot of options.”