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DJ Hayden says "It's my time to play", coach looking for "small successes"

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After sitting out the first six weeks of this season on the PUP list, DJ Hayden is rearing to go. Head coach Tony Sparano wants to take things day by day.

Levi Damien

According to D.J. Hayden, he's been ready to make his return to the lineup for the past three weeks which would have meant he was healthy enough to have played in the game in London. That wasn't possible as he was on the Physically Unable to Perform list. That meant he was out the first six weeks of the season. That ended last Sunday and he returned to practice with his teammates.

Injury wise, he is ready to go. He was a full participant in practice for the first time since the first day of OTA's last May. This has been a long time coming.

"It feels awesome to be back," said Hayden. "I'm glad I'm out there with my teammates. I just want to make plays; that's it."

No sooner did he step on the field but the former top pick was showing his playmaking abilities, picking off a pass (though there was no indication of who threw the pass).

"It felt good to get the ball back in my hands," he said. "I did get one and it felt good."

In OTA's, especially the first one, there is no contact and it is the practice equivalent of dipping your toe in the water. Since that day, his teammates have gone through the rest of the off-season, training camp, preseason, and five games of the regular season while he watched from the sideline, running drills with trainers.

All told, he hasn't seen a meaningful practice or game since November 3 of 2013 - nearly a year ago. So Sparano joked with him when he took the field, calling him a rookie and later razzing him following his interception.

"He actually had an interception at one point today in practice, grabbed the ball and got halfway down the field and stopped, so I asked him if he forgot what to do with it after he catches that thing," Sparano quipped.

Whether Hayden is up to speed from a stamina and mental side of things remains to be seen. On one hand, he says he could play this weekend saying "It's my time to play", on the other hand, he admits it could take some time before he is completely ready to go.

"I mean, I'm just taking it one day at a time, and watch film, critique myself," said Hayden. "I'm going to be my biggest critic and just become a better football player. I know I haven't been out there since OTA's and I just have to get back in the swing of things. I'm about to shake this rust off and get back out there and ball out."

Sparano shared a similar feeling, saying he is still not sure when he will activate Hayden for a game, suggesting it wouldn't be this week against the Cardinals.

"I anticipate taking it day-by-day and kind of evaluating it with the coaches and with Reggie [McKenzie] and really seeing kind of where we are right now with him. He hasn't played, obviously, in a long time, so we don't want to hurry the process here if we don't have to, and we don't right at this second, but when DJ is ready to go, we certainly can use him and we're just going to make sure he's ready to go and make sure everything is right, see how he feels tomorrow and take it from there."

"I think one of the big things is just, DJ needs to just get out there and start having small successes. Small successes every day on the practice field. Today was a small success. He went out there and he got a chance to run around a little bit and be with his teammates and do some of that, so that's an important first step. Then I think there's some more small successes coming up where maybe his workload increases a little bit, and then whenever we decide, hopefully as we get to that point, that he gets involved in a ball game and what his role is in that game at that time. It really depends on where we are and when we'd bring him up."

In other words, if they lose another cornerback to injury and get desperate, Hayden will be ready at that time. Barring that, they will make sure they know he is completely ready to go so as not to risk another injury to a player who had already been lost to injury three times within his first year as a Raider.

The Raiders have 21 days to activate him which means he could return to the lineup right about the one-year anniversary of when he last played a game -- November 2 in Seattle. If he keeps practicing well, the week before in Cleveland is real possibility as well.