This offseason Reggie McKenzie was faced with his first decision on whether to pick up the fifth year option on his first round pick. DJ Hayden was his first ever top pick, taken 12th overall in the 2013 draft. Unfortunately, Hayden’s lack of production over three seasons made that decision an easy one – they declined the option.
That decision has Hayden entering a not just a contract year, but a make or break training camp.
In order to try and help him find his niche on a team with two entrenched starters in David Amerson and Sean Smith was to let him compete for the slot cornerback spot with established clot presence, TJ Carrie.
"Last year they said ‘You wanna play nickel?’ and I was like ‘Yeah.’ So they put me out there and I just started getting after it," Hayden said following Sunday’s training camp practice.
Over his first few seasons, even when the team was in nickel, Hayden would work almost exclusively on the boundary. He was also viewed as a starter heading into all three seasons, despite having just two career interceptions in his first two seasons.
He had a third interception last season, but by midseason found himself buried on the depth chart and playing sparingly.
Despite his fall down the depth chart last season and the team opting not to pick up that fifth year option, Hayden says he’s as confident as ever. He also understands that if he is ever going to show the Raiders the potential they first saw in him, the time is now.
"I feel like I’m more confident because it’s my fourth year. It’s about time I made some plays. I wanna score some touchdowns, so I’m pretty confident I will."
To Hayden’s credit, over the first three days of training camp, he has stepped into his new role and looks very comfortable in it. He has said he feels more comfortable entering the second year in the same scheme. His defensive coordinator also credits the familiarity with the scheme to Hayden’s progress.
"Just like everyone else; familiarity with the concepts," Ken Norton jr said of Hayden. "Understanding what I’m asking. His confidence is really high. He’s really excited to be here. And he loves what he’s doing. You see we have competition across the board and he’s a competitor. He’s fitting right in and competing every day."
Last season when Norton was asked about why Hayden was seeing less time in the defense, he pointed to practice habits. It was a pretty clear message to Hayden that he has to work for everything he gets, just like everyone else.
"If you don't practice hard and you don't perform, you won't play," Norton said last December. "We have a competitive group and it's week to week. You play hard, you perform, you'll play and that's what practices are for. You can't waste your time in practice. It's a time to get better."
Norton still preaches strong practice habits, but his tone now seems to suggest that perhaps Hayden has bought in.
Jack Del Rio said this offseason that Hayden fits the slot role because he has quick feet. Norton said today there was nothing special about Hayden that suggests he would make a good slot corner. It’s just part of the job description for a corner in his defense.
"No, the outside guys, we expect the outside guys to be able to play inside," said Norton. "So, it’s not just inside or outside, you have to play both. You’re outside receiver might play inside, so you have to have the ability to play both. He’s a guy that we see as a guy who’s really going to excel this year."
There’s a lot of camp left, and four preseason games still ahead for Hayden to earn his spot on this team. And from there an entire season to prove he belongs in this league. He’s off to a good start.