Hope Or Hurt For Hayden?

Jun 06, 2014 11:51 PM EST

This season Oakland Raiders cornerback D.J. Hayden has the opportunity to make the impact he should have made in his rookie year in 2013. Last month, defensive coordinator Jason Tarver praised Hayden for his fitness and explosiveness saying that he has essentially put all the worst behind him. Sports pundits have observed that he “looks like a different player” in practice. The tentative depth chart even lists Hayden as starting.

Then after receiving the effusive praise, Hayden rolled his ankle last week during OTAs. Coach Dennis Allen was quick to tell the media that it was nothing serious as Hayden walked around in a boot. It may be nothing serious, but it follows the pattern of last season — albeit with a different injury. He might be lost until training camp. So it begs two questions: Is he a different player? And will he start?

In fairness, Hayden, 23, has shown the confidence that eluded him last year. For one thing, until the aforementioned ankle injury, he was completely healthy. He is probably in some of the best shape of his life. This is a little more than two years after Hayden, during his senior year at the University of Houston, survived a near fatal collision with another player during a practice drill. Hayden nearly bled to death from a torn vein that carries blood to the heart. This could have ended Hayden’s football career, but Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie saw a promising player with a bright future.

At Houston over the 2011 and 2012 seasons, he had 127 total tackles and six interceptions. But for his season-ending injury, his 2012 stats would likely have been even better. He emerged as a fast, shutdown corner who could break on the ball, which is why the Raiders drafted him.

Not long after being drafted, Hayden underwent follow-up surgery to remove scar tissue from around his heart. He returned for training camp but had a lackluster start to his rookie year, struggling in the first half of the season to make tackles and break on the ball. In the second half of the season, he suffered a groin injury and was out the last eight games of the season. As a first-round draft pick, he was considered, by most analysts, to be a disappointment.

When Hayden played last year, it was in a backup role with a team that struggled in the secondary. He managed only 25 tackles and two passes defensed. But a flash of what was to come came in the Raiders’ 27-17 win over San Diego in Week 5, Oakland’s most convincing win of the season against a stronger opponent. He had his first interception in the end zone, stopping QB Philip Rivers’ attempt to pull the Chargers within four points.  At 5-11 and 190 pounds, Hayden has the size, and with the extra weight he has put on the offseason, he expects that he will be able “to take on blocks, big receivers and be able to tackle big running backs, so that was one of my goals,” he said recently in an interview.

As for Coach Allen, he says that Hayden still has a lot of room to grow, but expects a breakout year for him, referring to him as a quasi-rookie. Hayden’s rookie struggles occurred for reasons beyond his control. He can start over with some NFL experience under his belt, and championship and experienced veterans to learn from. Even if Hayden’s injury puts him in a backup role again this season, even for a few games, he should be more effective than he was last year.

“There was a reason why we took him where took him last year. We feel great about the player, and we’re excited to see how he can develop this year,” Allen said of Hayden, the 12th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft.