D.J. Hayden’s ride to the NFL has not been an easy one. In the last few years, Hayden has gone from being a Division I afterthought to a first round NFL draft pick in the matter of three years. At NJCAA member, Navarro College, Hayden began what would grow to be an illustrious junior college football career. In 2010, Hayden led Navarro College to a national championship. From Navarro, Hayden headed off to the University of Houston where he made waves as a newcomer by appearing in eleven games and forcing five fumbles in addition to two interceptions. While Hayden’s junior season was phenomenal, his senior season started out even better. Through nine games, Hayden amassed four interceptions, one forced fumble, and two touchdowns, however, he fell victim to a torn inferior vena cava. His chest was struck and the vena cava, a major vein carrying deoxygenated blood to the heart, tore away from his heart. Such injuries are rarely, if ever, seen on the football field with 95% of such injuries being fatal. The most common situation in which the vena cava is torn is in high impact car crashes. Luckily, Hayden has since recovered and even made it back in time to compete in the Houston pro day where he ran an estimated 4.38 second forty yard dash.
Hayden was not supposed to be selected before the second round and even the second round sounded too early for most draft experts, however, the Raiders took Hayden with the twelfth pick in the NFL draft. Hayden’s wait was much shorter than expected, but it appears to be the right fit for Hayden. His style of play walks the tightrope between cockiness and confidence, carrying the swagger of the Raiders of old. Although Hayden was again hospitalized for an abdominal issue, he should be okay for the future and is expected back in time for training camp.
Breaking Hayden Down: The Run
In order to break Hayden down, I will use progressive pictures in certain situations to exemplify Hayden’s strengths. The following images are from his first season at the University of Houston against Penn State in the TicketCity Bowl.
In this case, Hayden is lined up against the outside receiver, but has his eyes inside. Penn State, typically sporting a ground attack, is in a perfect situation to hand the ball off to Silas Redd on 1st & 10. In this case, Hayden is not only looking for the snap, but he is aware of the situation and the down and distance.
Hayden takes an inside release off the line of scrimmage and the wide receiver lets him run free to hopefully be kicked out by #37. While the run game is not Hayden’s forte, he shows good instincts by quickly recognizing the reverse to #20. His eyes are firmly squared on the backfield and has put himself in position to either take on a blocker or make the stop for a loss.
Hayden takes on the block by escaping the block outside which could help funnel the ball carrier down into the middle of the field where his teammates can make a stop or the ball carrier could go outside and have the play strung out and be pushed out of bounds. By taking the block on with the inside shoulder and keeping his outside shoulder free, Hayden gives the defense the advantage and puts the ball carrier in a tough position. If the ball carrier had gotten an opportunity to turn the corner outside, the play could turn into a big gain, but Hayden’s positioning makes this nearly impossible.
The end result: Hayden beats the blocker and gets to the ball carrier before he makes a decision to cut up or run outside. Impressively, Hayden wraps up the ball carrier in the open field and also displays his ability as a sure tackler. While Hayden is no linebacker, he plays much bigger than his 5’11″, 195 lbs. frame. Many cornerbacks are what Todd McShay calls "buffet tacklers", however, Hayden is an exception. A buffet tackler is a player who picks and chooses when he is going to decide to tackle the offensive player.
Breaking Hayden Down: The Blitz
The corner blitz is an area where Hayden excels because of his terrific speed. Hayden has shown the ability to come off the edge and attack the quarterback from the blindside.
In this case, Hayden is again lined up one on one against Penn State’s outside receiver. He is disguising the blitz well as he has not cheated inside or given any indication that he may be headed for the quarterback. Instead, Hayden has his head trained on the receiver.
Hayden displays explosiveness and quickness off the snap of the ball by beating the receiver inside and then making the quarterback his target and putting him squarely in his sights. By beating the receiver inside, Hayden cuts down the distance that it takes to get to the quarterback and therefore he cuts down the time it takes to get to the quarterback. In the pass rush, every second is valuable since the quarterback typically releases the ball between two and three seconds after the snap of the ball.
Although Hayden was not quick enough to make the play, he comes close to blindsiding the quarterback and knocking the ball loose. Next time the quarterback drops back, he will have to have a quicker internal clock in order to get the ball out quicker which typically speeds up the quarterback’s decision making process. Speeding up a quarterback’s decision making process is crucial because it often makes it much more difficult to find the correct receiver to throw to. Later in the same game, Hayden comes on an identical blitz and causes a fumble because the quarterback could not get the ball out quick enough. Hayden’s speed is a major plus to his game and helps make blitzing a crucial part to Hayden’s game.
Breaking Hayden Down: The Pass
Since the biggest part to a corner’s game is how he defends the pass, I have included two series for Hayden’s play against passes. One set of images is from a game against UCLA in Hayden’s senior season.
Here, Hayden is again matched up on the outside against a receiver, but he is in relatively soft coverage in comparison to the other two situations. Again, it seems as if Hayden and the Houston defense were prepared for Penn State’s attack. On pass plays, they are in certain coverage, but against potential run plays, the Houston defensive backs, played much closer to the line of scrimmage.
The receiver makes a slow cut out of his break and instead of attempting to give some type of fake, he goes straight into his route. In addition to telegraphing his break, the receiver rounds out his break rather than sharply and fluidly moving into his break. Hayden immediately sniffs out the receiver’s route and gets his hips into position in order to make a break on the ball.
The receiver cuts back toward the ball, but Hayden has already began his full fledged attack on the ball. Hayden read and reacted to the receiver’s movements before the receiver even made his moves. Although the receiver has not yet realized it, Hayden is looming over his inside shoulder and is in better position than the receiver is in to catch the ball. Here Hayden displays loose hips and quick footwork to cut back into position to get in front of the receiver.
Hayden jumps the route and cuts back to the ball quicker than the wide receiver can. Although Hayden failed to make the catch, he makes a phenomenal pass break up that helped display a number of physical and mental skills. It seems as though Hayden has a solid grip on how to play the corner position at a high level. He is extremely precise and accurate in his movements throughout the play.
Breaking Hayden Down: Pass
Based on Hayden’s pre-snap placement, one can see that he either has a tight end or player in the backfield in a man match-up or he is playing zone on the right side of the field. He has his eyes on both the line of scrimmage as well as the backfield as the offense is set and ready to snap the ball. He is well off the line of scrimmage, a little deeper than linebacker depth, but more shallow than the safety.
After the ball is snapped, Hayden backpedals and eyes his man. He then flips his hips to turn and run with the receiver who has started making a direct path down the side line. On the fly route, it is crucial that Hayden can get good positioning to defend the back shoulder throw as well as the deep throw down the sideline.
Despite the blurry view, it is clear that Hayden has identified that the quarterback tried to cut off the route by throwing the ball towards the sideline in a spot where he thinks only the wide receiver can catch it. The only problem for the quarterback is that DJ Hayden read the quarterback and was able to flip his hips and get back around. Much like the previous series, Hayden displays all of his skills to make this play.
Hayden managed to get back faster than the receiver and he finishes the play by intercepting the quarterback’s pass unlike the last series. How is this play different from the last series? Hayden had a split second decision to make a move on the ball and the cut under the receiver which makes it much tighter in this sequence. It is unbelievably impressive to see such a quick defensive back make so many plays. Rather than read and react, this play is much quicker and the ball gets up on the receiver faster in this situation.
Was he the right pick?
I believe that while the positioning of the pick may be slightly questionable, Hayden was the right pick for the Raiders. The Raiders needed another cornerback and Hayden has been a playmaker. He is not the typical corner because he can make a play with the ball in his hands. While he has a small stature, Hayden has the potential to be a mid level number one cornerback. He will never shut down wide receivers like Calvin Johnson and AJ Green, however, Hayden can cover most receivers in the NFL because he is tough, and has solid fundamentals. His play in the pass game is admirable, but his work against the run and his ability to blitz are the small parts of his game that set him apart. Dennis Allen, the new head coach of the Oakland Raiders, has a history of coaching defensive backs and defenses. It is doubtful that he would draft a player that he does not prefer or think could become a high level player. With Allen’s help, Hayden can become a successful NFL corner. Hayden is a natural playmaker and often creates his own opportunities for himself which bode well for him in the NFL. All in all, I think Hayden is ready to "just win, baby".