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DJ Hayden sees battles with Raiders new top receivers raising his game

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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Following the Raiders' first preseason game last week against the Rams, head coach Jack Del Rio made sure he pointed out the performance of his embattled starting cornerback, D.J. Hayden.

"I know Hayden was an early pick here so there's a lot of scrutiny on him," said Del Rio. "I thought he made a really big play early in the game on a key third down stop and so I would mention that (as standing out)."

The former 12 overall pick is coming into his third season as the projected starter and there is much expected of him. He has been in competition with last year's fourth round pick Keith McGill all camp and at times McGill has looked to have the upper hand in that race.

While the Raiders stuck with their young group of corners returning from last season, they made a big change on the other side of the ball, signing Michael Crabtree as a free agent from the 49ers, and drafting Amari Cooper at number 4 overall.

With all 15 days of camp now behind us, fans have been left with a great deal of concern with Hayden as he has been tested over and over against Crabtree and Cooper, and more often than not, Hayden did fair well in those tests.

The first question is usually whether the result of these battles is more a product of how good the receivers are or how poorly Hayden is playing. The answer comes in facing other teams. But one thing is for certain; Hayden is facing a higher level of competition in practice every day. He sees that competition as one that will only raise his game.

"Crab and Coop, they're great competition," said Hayden. "We're out here and we're getting each other better each and every day. They're definitely going to help us win a lot of games this year."

"Coop has a lot of speed and Crab is a very crafty receiver so you get kind of the best of both worlds."

As Hayden points out, the two receivers bring a lot of challenging aspects to the table on the field. One area in which they are very different is their demeanor. Cooper is very quiet with a businesslike approach, which Crabtree will talk, he will showboat, and he will taunt.

Those qualities in Crabtree are what sent Richard Sherman into his classic rant when the Seahawks beat the 49ers in the NFC Championship game two years ago -- a game that ended with an interception by Sherman while covering Crabtree. After which Sherman got in Crabtree's face and then tried to shake hands with him. Crabtree was not having it.

That level of trash talking is what goes on between Crabtree and Hayden on the daily in training camp. Most times Crabtree has a lot more to talk about.

"I think Crab's bringing us some of what we brought him here for, he's friendly to the quarterback and Derek's a good young player," Del Rio said the first week of camp. "There's a great competition going on over there for our DB's working against a good quarterback and good receiver and some good contested plays right there so I like the way they're working."

Hayden has had a pass defended here and there in camp, a few of which were guarding Crabtree. Hayden has had just one interception this camp and it came on day 6 while guarding Amari Cooper. It had to feel good for Hayden to finally get his hands around one after six days, but he claims to feel no pressure to make those plays.

"I just keep working," said Hayden halfway through camp. "In training camp we're just getting better. I mean interceptions, you definitely want them, but they're gonna come. We keep working, doing our job, they're gonna come."

After that first interception, they didn't come over the final nine days of training camp. Next up is the team's second preseason game where we will have the chance to see if those competitions will translate to the field of play in a game setting.

With Keith McGill currently out with an undisclosed injury, Hayden will start without question. He will have three more preseason games to try and prove he deserves to be the team's starting corner.

He is confident that he will see the field a lot this season regardless and he's probably right. The question will be where on the field and where in the depth chart.

"I know I'm gonna play and I know when my opportunity comes, I'm definitely going to take it and make the best of it. . . They're getting their money's worth. I mean, they drafted me first round, I might as well play nickel and corner. I'm excited, I like playing inside."

"It don't matter to me, I just wanna be on that field playing football and if [Defensive coordinator] Kenny [Norton Jr] needs me to play nickel, that's what I'm gonna do, I'm gonna start at nickel. They want me to start on the outside, I'm gonna start on the outside. We need to rotate, we're gonna do it. We're just gonna get, whatever the job is, we're gonna get it done for the defense."

These players like to say ‘iron sharpens iron' and if that cliché holds true, the Raiders young corners will be the best prepared they've been in quite some time.