Last year around this time, DJ Hayden was lying in a hospital bed hooked up to an IV. Just as his NFL career was supposed to begin, he hit a roadblock. It was not the first roadblock and not the biggest one by a longshot. But it also wouldn't be the last.
The first and most major roadblock was in his senior season at Houston when he was kicked in the chest and suffered a heart injury that nearly cost him his life. After a four month recovery, he had worked his way back to show NFL scouts at his pro day that he was back to full strength.
What no one was expecting was the aftermath of that surgery that would knock him out of OTA's last year and require another surgery to clean out scar tissue that had built up in his abdomen.
The procedure had him wearing a red non-contact jersey through much of training camp. He was cleared for full contact just prior to the season but by that point he had fallen behind.
He didn't start, but played a fair amount, entering games as the right boundary cornerback when the team played their nickel defense. He struggled quite a bit early on though it wasn't unusual when compared to other rookie corners.
He had his best game in week five against the Chargers in which he had a crucial interception to help the Raiders to one of their four wins last season. After that he would play in just two more healthy games before hitting another major roadblock with a groin injury that had him placed on injured reserve for the final eight games of the season.
Now he enters the Raiders off-season practices more healthy than he's been in two years.
Not only is he finally healthy, but he has bulked up and the difference is noticeable. One of his biggest issues last season was shying away from contact and getting pushed around by receivers.
"I definitely have a lot more confidence than I did last year because I've been lifting, working out, working with trainers, working in the offseason program. I definitely feel a lot better," said Hayden. "I definitely want to be stronger so I can take on blocks. Big receivers and being able to tackle big running backs. That was one of my goals."
The issue isn't as simple as physicality. For Hayden, it is a combination of physical and mental. While his slight frame made him easier to block, it was the traumatic experience of his life threatening heart injury understandably weighed on his mind and had him pulling up on some hits.
"I think he's light years ahead of where he was at this point last year. Not just from a physical standpoint, but really from a mental standpoint too.," said Dennis Allen. "I think he realizes now that everything's going to be fine, he's going to be OK, and now he can really focus on getting better as a football player."
The Raiders defense collapsed in the second half of last season. Now they hope to rebound this season with a rebuilt defense. In a way, Hayden is part of that rebuild because they were without his services during that time.
The Raiders have a whole new draft class coming in but unlike the newly drafted rookies, Hayden has at least experienced playing against NFL receivers.
The expectations are high for the former number 12 overall pick. He has put the surgeries and the injury behind him as well as his partial rookie season struggles. Now he is also the projected week one starter with what he hopes is a full, healthy off-season and training camp to prepare for it.
To say his confidence is "light years" ahead of last season seems pretty accurate.