October 6, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders cornerback DJ Hayden (25) intercepts the ball against San Diego Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen (13) during the fourth quarter at O.co Coliseum. The Raiders defeated the Chargers 27-17. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Breaking down D.J. Hayden: Comparing his hot rookie start to the NFL's elite

Yesterday on the Just Blog Baby Podcast Chase and Rory broke down D.J. Hayden’s first six games as a rookie compared to the 2013 Draft class as well as to the starts of the NFL’s current top cornerbacks using data from Pro Football Focus. Today Rory expands on the breakdown. 

Ever since the Raiders and Reggie McKenzie chose cornerback DJ Hayden with the 12th overall pick in the 2013 draft, people have criticized both he and Reggie. I want to take it upon myself as a staunch defender of DJ Hayden to put his performance into perspective. Before I jump into this analysis, I want to first say that statistical analysis is very flawed. I come from an economics background and a particular one that does not believe in static analysis since we deal with irrational humans. Looking at statistics no matter how creative they are and how many variables they account for, only shows a portion of the picture. Those numbers still lack context and they certainly do not account for what is seen on tape which can be immensely different from statistics. Take DJ Fluker for example. Pro Football Focus has him at a 5.1 grade through six weeks! That is ridiculous! I will tell you this, from a tape review perspective; he should be in the negatives maybe around -10.0 or somewhere in that vicinity. Many of PFF’s statistics baffle me from an outcome perspective because they do not match the tape, but the numbers can provide some useful insight.

When looking at PFF’s stats, the top rookie cornerback is the Bronco’s Kayvon Webster who was taken in the third round and ranks 25th overall. The downside with him is that he has only played 127 snaps (the one game he had over thirty snaps he had a negative score). Realistically he is dime cornerback on a very good team and he gets a lot of good matchups and simple plays to make. The top starting rookie is cornerback Desmond Trufant from Atlanta. He is 27th overall in the PFF rankings with a 2.6 rating. His score is also a little deceiving though. He only plays on the right side, and almost his entire positive score has come from one game and he has not forced a turnover yet. Add that to the notion that the Falcons pay a lot of cover two which allows him to have short responsibilities and not have to cope with a diverse scheme and there is an obvious advantage in simplicity.

The next rookie starter is Xavier Rhodes from Minnesota. He is 51st overall with a 0.0 score. When you see his game logs he has one great game and one dismal game, but again this is a strict nickel cornerback and later I will show why their numbers from a PFF standpoint are inflated. Dee Milliner has a -2.0 rating but he has only played 128 snaps in six games. DJ Hayden is 88th in the league with a -4.3 rating. Want to know who is directly behind him? Charles Tillman. Mike Jenkins is 91st overall with a -4.5 rating and I haven’t seen a lot of Raider Nation complain about him. For all of that being said, the one thing Hayden has that no other starting rookie cornerback ahead of him has is an interception. Furthermore, Hayden also has a forced fumble, so he has forced two turnovers where no other rookie starting cornerback has forced one. Just so you know, Tracy Porter is 51 overall with a -0.3 rating.

What these numbers require is context. Every week DJ Hayden has lined up against the opposing team’s best wide receiver, and in today’s NFL the receivers have all of the advantages. In the six games, Hayden’s main responsibilities have totaled a 25.3 rating. That means each is averaging over a 4.0 for the season. That average is a top 20 wide receiver and it doesn’t get any easier in week eight when Hayden will line up against top ranked wide receiver Antonio Brown who has a 13.5 rating. Also, Hayden’s worst week was Week 3 in Denver. He recorded a -4.0 and PFF has him labeled with six missed tackles which is the VAST majority of his downgrade. Had he just made those tackles his grade would have been significantly better, but let us not forget, he was covering Demaryius Thomas all game with Peyton Manning throwing the ball, an assignment that would expose any young cornerback.

There is another interesting way to analyze Hayden’s play. By examining the quarterback passer rating when they throw at Hayden can give us an idea of how confident and successful quarterbacks are throwing at him. So where does Hayden rank? Of the 104 players that qualify, DJ Hayden ranks 34th in PFF’s stats with ahead of both his teammates Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter. The only two rookies that are ahead of Hayden are Kayvon Webster from Denver at 26 and the Chiefs Marcus Cooper ranking 2nd overall with a rating of 28.1. Both of these players have seen dramatically less snaps than Hayden and Cooper has only been thrown at 24 times in 208 snaps and the majority of them have come against third or fourth receivers. Hayden has been thrown at 32 times in 267 snaps and he has covered the top receivers of every team he has faced. Furthermore, Cooper intercepted his first pass this weekend, but he has not given up a touchdown. Hayden on the other hand has given up a touchdown. Cooper’s completion percentage he is given up is 33.3% and Hayden’s is 59.4%. But again, let us keep this in perspective of the competition. The three games Cooper has gotten over 10 snaps the quarterbacks he faced were Eli Manning at Arrowhead, Ryan Fitzpatrick in Tennessee, and Terrelle Pryor in Arrowhead who had a decimated offensive line. Hayden has faced Peyton Manning which was his worst game and RGIII when he held Garcon to 59 yards but did give up his only touchdown. To end this section, the player directly after Hayden in quarterback rating is Tyrann Matheiu who is a slot corner, but primarily a safety. Xavier Rhodes has a 78.0 rating against him, Dee Milliner a 92.6, Johnathon Banks a 98.5, Desmond Trufant a 98.6, and finally Charles Tillman a 98.7.

Comparing Hayden 

Let us put this into perspective with some of the best cornerbacks in the game and compare their rookie seasons. PFF only has stats back to 2008 so it won’t work for Revis, but it will for Patrick Peterson who many relate to Deion Sanders. This year he is seven overall. His rookie year his rating was -10.8 and his score through six games was -7.8. Hayden’s is -4.3. Remember what I said about cover two cornerbacks having inflated stats? Let us have a look at Aqib Talib who was drafted as that kind of corner. His rookie year as a strict right corner in a cover two lead to a 3.1 rating with a 0.6 after six games. He only recorded 14 tackles the entire season on 367 snaps with four interceptions. Which cornerback do you want on your team? Talib or Peterson? Yes Talib is having a good season this year, but he is a guy that does best in zone coverage which suits him perfectly in New England.

Alterraun Verner

Alterraun Verner is currently the top graded cornerback according to PFF. When you look back at his rookie season in 2010, he also grades very highly. After six games and three starts his rookie his season he had a 6.9 grade which frankly is astounding. When you dig deeper into his numbers you find out that he allowed 69.2% of passes completed against him and an opposing quarterback rating of 80.8. Hayden has given up 59.4% completions and as mentioned earlier a 76.4 quarterback rating. Verner’s teammate Jason McCourtey was a rookie in 2009. He played 6 games starting three. In those games he was given a -0.9 rating by PFF. He only had two games with positive scores. One of those games he had a 1.1 rating in run plays to boost his score and he had a positive coverage rating of 1.3 in his final game. Realistically his season is a mixed bag, but his rating is inflated due to some run stops not necessarily coverage.

Sean Smith

Chiefs Cornerback Sean Smith was a rookie in 2009. His rating was a 5.6, but penalties account for 3.6 of that rating, he had a 1.8 rating in run stopping, and only a 0.2 in pass coverage. His former teammate Brandon Carr who is now a Cowboy, started all 16 games his rookie year and recorded a -22.4 rating and now he is fifteenth in the league with a 3.9 rating for six games. Chris Harris of the Broncos is currently tenth in the NFL and in his rookie season he only started five games and in only one of those starts did he have a positive score which was against the Raiders in 2011 week nine where he scored a 0.7. In his five starts he was a -4.3 and always played in the slot.

Richard Sherman

Richard Sherman started twelve games his rookie season and on 786 snaps he received a 9.2 rating while playing exclusively on the left side. When one examines his stats, he received a negative 5 rating in penalties for the season and did virtually nothing in the running game. He excelled in coverage, but he was not asked to do more than that nor was he asked to stick to a man. He played a side, but he excelled in press man coverage. Teams went at Sherman a lot and he forced a 46.4 completion percentage, a quarterback rating of 57.3, recorded 4 four interceptions, and gave up three touchdowns. Although Hayden has only technically started one game, the Raiders play an immense amount of nickel and when they do, Hayden generally takes the top wide receiver. Sherman however was a boom or bust player. Yes he excelled in coverage, but he did record several penalties and wasn’t asked to be a part of the run game as Hayden is.

The most remarkable rookie season is that of Joe Haden who recorded a 13.4 with 813 snaps although he only started in seven games. He had a reception rate of 53.8% and a quarterback rating against him of 50.1. This number is oddly skewed since he was never thrown at in the Carolina Panthers game that season. Although his coverage was generally solid and consistent, he did have seven games where gave up a rating of 90 or more and six of those were over 100. The other nine games were all under a 43 rating two in single digits. DJ Hayden has allowed a rating of 90 or more in three games with two over 100, but the other three are all under 80 and one is a 0.8 rating. That was the San Diego Chargers game week five. These are similar results between both of the Hayden’s (or are they Haden’s??) and this is the result of the intricacies of playing cornerback in the NFL.

Conclusion

If you really want to judge DJ Hayden at this point look at the tape. He has amazing physical skills with top end closing speed. Yes he has gotten beat, but so did Peterson. It is part of the growing process for rookie cornerbacks. Let us also remember he had no training camp and was sidelined for ten months for injury recovery. DJ Hayden is a very talented player, but he needs time to adjust as all cornerbacks do. What he has to work on most is getting his head turned around, but that is a trick that takes a long time to learn. Give the kid some time and remember, he has already forced two turnovers and is on the verge of becoming the shutdown corner the Raiders have been waiting for.

*All players mentioned are those that qualify in the top 25% of snaps as cornerbacks in order to qualify for the analysis. The vast majority of rookie cornerbacks do not even qualify for this article.

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