NASHVILLE – As the months passed, and safety Kenny Vaccaro remained without a team all of last offseason, he found himself thinking back to his humble upbringings.
Vaccaro, a first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, had played four solid seasons with the New Orleans Saints. But when his contract expired in March of 2018, he remained unsigned for five months -- until the Titans signed him in August 2018 after Johnathan Cyprien went down.
"What I went through last year, it was tough," Vaccaro said after signing a contract extension last week. "I was thinking: 'I know I am a starter. I know I should be on a team, but I am not.' It was tough for me, but I think it made me better not only as a player, but as a man.
"It reminded me of growing up in my hometown of Brownwood, Texas, being dead poor, not thinking we're going to ever made it out of that city. It kind of brings you back. Then I go on to be a first-round pick. It kind of resets you. Not humble you, but resets you and takes you back to square one. I'm glad it all worked out here."
Yes, it all worked out.
In another span of five months -- August to December -- Vaccaro established himself on a defense that finished third in the NFL in points allowed, and eighth overall in yards allowed. Vaccaro started 13 games for the Titans, and he finished with 70 tackles, two sacks, and an interception.
Most important, he found himself as part of a team again, with teammates who made him better, he said.
Vaccaro praised fellow safety Kevin Byard, and the rest of his secondary mates, from Logan Ryan to Malcolm Butler to Adoree' Jackson.
"KB is the best safety in the league," Vaccaro said of Byard. "Logan is the best nickel in the league, and I have the two best corners in the league. So my job is pretty easy. They make me want to elevate my game.
"That's my biggest thing -- it is not just competing against my opponent. I want to make sure I don't let Kevin Byard down, Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler, Adoree' Jackson (down). That's what drives me, not necessarily who we are going against. I am not going to let them down at any point in the game. That is where my passion comes from. Besides having my back against the wall, when I look to my left and right and you have that level of competition, not just the other team but within your room, that makes you elevate you game."
Looking ahead to 2019, Vaccaro has high hopes for a defense that will have even more chemistry.
Remember, Vaccaro just joined the group in August. He missed all of the offseason work as the rest of the team prepared for the season.
Vaccaro said he can be even better personally, following a year when he played the traditional safety position for the first time in the NFL. With the Saints, he played nickel, around the line of scrimmage, instead of being 10 yards off the ball.
He believes it's a position that fits his skill-set.
"I still think I have a lot of work to do," Vaccaro said. "I want to earn the team's respect with these workouts coming up, not just on the field but how hard I grind, my work ethic. ... You should see a big leap, as far as from myself, and for our secondary."
Plus, he expects a leap from a defense that's already added former Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake, who has 98 career sacks.
More additions could be coming in free agency and/or the NFL Draft.
"I am excited. More pass rush means more picks for us, it all works hand in hand," Vaccaro said when asked about Wake. "We cover and they can get to the quarterback, and if they get to the quarterback we don't have to cover as long. Rush and coverage, that's what makes a great defense and it's all about team.
"(As a defense) we could be great. I don't want to give out any predictions at all. We were the No.3 scoring defense last year. We are all coming back together, and that continuity is a big thing, especially in the secondary. … The sky is the limit. It is on paper right now, but we'll grind together in the summer and training camp and we'll see what happens."
TitansOnline.com looks back at veteran safety Kenny Vaccaro's 2018 season. (AP Photos)