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DJ Hayden missed time opens door for Neiko Thorpe "focused. He wants it"

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Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

One of the positions that was looking like it could be the deepest on this Raiders team in training camp ends up needing to be. With D.J. Hayden being placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list and nickel corner Chimdi Chekwa's status in doubt for the opener, the Raiders need the rest of the cornerback group to step up.

Through most of camp the talk was about how surprising the play of rookie T.J. Carrie has been. But under that radar early in camp, former CFLer Neiko Thorpe was turning heads as well.

Thorpe had an injury stand in the way of his progress in camp, but picked up right where he left off when he returned last week and had a tremendous game versus the Packers last Friday night. Now, the third cornerback job stands between he and Carrie.

"Yeah, I think both those guys have really done a good job of competing," Allen said of Carrie and Thorpe. "We haven't seen as much of Neiko Thorpe, we've seen a little bit more of T.J. Carrie. With Neiko, I was pleased with what I saw before he got injured, I liked what I saw in the Green Bay game, but a lot of the determination will be based on what we see Thursday night (in the preseason game against the Seahawks)."

Allen went on to say that in the nickel defense, either Carrie or Thorpe will take the boundary -- just as DJ Hayden did last season -- with Carlos Rogers shifting inside to play the slot.

Thorpe went undrafted in 2012 out of Auburn in where he played both cornerback and safety. He was signed by the Chiefs, made the team, and played nine games for them that season. But when he returned the following year, he didn't make the team.

Instead of sitting around waiting for another chance at the NFL, he opted to play in Canada. His play there caught the eye of the Raiders who signed him to a reserve/future contract last January.

I spoke to Thorpe back in training camp just after he had really started to gain the respect his coaches with his improved play in practice and I asked him how he went from being cut to playing in the CFL to making a real push for a roster spot with this team.

"I did a lot of soul searching this off-season and I just really got back to the basics," said Thorpe. "Playing football, keeping the main thing the main thing, and I wouldn't say I was distracted a lot but it was just really focusing on me, my preparation, and just remembering how I got to the Chiefs undrafted and being able to make the team, playing nine games for those guys. It was just me getting back to the basics and blessed enough to know what to do in the off-season, to get the work in so when I do come here, it shows up."

Thorpe mentions "focus". That ability has not been lost on Raiders defensive coordinator, Jason Tarver, who raves about how Thorpe was able to bounce back and play so well so soon after returning from his injury.

"This young man, he is focused, he wants it," Tarver said of Thorpe. "I'm impressed with his mental focus, how he can go one play at a time and whatever happens, go to the next play. He's made a choice. He wants to be a part of this and that's great, that's what we want to be around. So, I hope he keeps doing that and keeps progressing because that mindset, that's what you're looking for."

When I spoke with Thorpe, I had a similar impression of him as Tarver. Often times when speaking with players who are trying to break back into the league or make a comeback, the questions revolve around what they are doing differently this time around to ensure they stick. And most of the time, the player responds something to the affect "I'm not doing anything different really."

More times than not, that proves to be the wrong answer, almost always signaling that their comeback attempt will end in failure. That's not how Thorpe responded.

"I felt like I was focused at a certain point but obviously I wasn't focused enough," said Thorpe. "Just looking at the results. I mean, I felt like I gave it my all in Kansas City and for me to be released it was hard. And then to make the decision to wait around for a workout or go to Canada, that was hard too, but you know life goes on. I made the decision to go up north and while I was up there, I was playing and I'd just start thinking there ‘well, I thought I went hard, but maybe I needed to go harder'. So, it was a lot of thinking and digging and just not taking 'no' for an answer, basically. I just wanted to eventually get another shot over here in the States once I got out of Canada and I got a tryout with the Raiders and I never looked back from there. I made a promise to myself that if I do something and I think I'm going hard then I'm gonna go a little harder because I know how it is to go hard and then be denied."

The Raiders signed a couple CFL players this off-season. They also brought in running back Kory Sheets who was making a push for a roster spot before being lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon.

Raiders brass clearly sees the decision by these players to hone their craft in the CFL as a positive thing. As Thorpe said, he is not "taking no for an answer." Jason Tarver put it another way.

"The only way to get better at playing football is playing football," said Tarver. "And he's gotten better and better since. He's even had a change of position and he's moved around but impressive that he locks in. He says ‘ok, I'm gonna do what the coach says' and that's what he does. And he competes his butt off. He competes his butt off every day in practice and so far in the games. When you do that, you've got a chance."

Playing football is something that D.J. Hayden hasn't done much of over the past couple years. That message of getting better at football only by playing it is quite true, especially for cornerbacks. Charles Woodson said as much prior to camp when at the time it was thought Hayden would simply miss some time in training camp. It will continue to be true now that Hayden has missed all of training camp and will be out at least the first six weeks of this season.

In Hayden's absence, guys like Thorpe have gotten their shot. He saw his opportunity and he focused his approach to make sure this time he seized it. As a result he is not only going to make this team, but could make some noise this season as well.