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

2013 Oakland Raiders Player Evaluation: D.J. Hayden

Throughout the offseason, Just Blog Baby will be evaluating the performance of players on the 2013 Oakland Raiders roster. This evaluation on 2013 Raiders first round draft pick D.J. Hayden comes from JBB Podcast cohost Rory Anderson.

For one reason or another people love to beat up on DJ Hayden and his play this season. For me, when I put everything into context, I see a very talented player that dealt with a significant injury, missed a ton of reps due to no training camp, and made rookie mistakes because of it. When you really dive into his numbers, some of them show his rookie mistakes, but when they are compared to another rookie cornerback whose game is extremely similar, you find they are pretty standard. A quick disclaimer, I am not writing this to justify Reggie McKenzie’s choice of Hayden because I believe his play will justify that decision over time, but I will once again show how immediate reactions regarding draft picks are unwarranted and impractical.

By the Tape

DJ Hayden had a very mixed bag when it comes to his play this season. Early on he seemed to struggle in press coverage and was hesitant in his rerouting. This is most likely due to his loss of practice time, but the result was giving up some big plays in the passing game. He did not get burnt or blown off the ball; instead he seemed passive and thus ineffective at times. Then when they would put him in off coverage where he was at home, he had success in preventing the big play and rallying up and making the tackle. As the weeks went on, Hayden got progressively better at using his hands and one of the lost successes (which were few) in the Eagles game, was how well Hayden rerouted Cooper to the outside. Of course he injured himself on that play and got beat by an exceptional throw, but his coverage was solid.

One of the hardest techniques for a corner to learn and it is why many talented cornerbacks struggle early on in man to man coverage, is learning when to get their head around. Cornerbacks time their movements based on keys given from the man they are defending. Many times it is seeing the eyes open or the hands come up, but veteran NFL receivers are able to hold off from giving themselves away. That requires that a cornerback learn to feel the ball coming in other ways or be more attentive, but these lessons take time to learn and missing training camp put a delay on that learning. The best man coverage corners take time to develop. Generally speaking, cornerbacks that do well their rookie years are either role players or zone corners. Corners such as Alterraun Verner, Joe Haden, and Marcus Cooper all had on paper success their rookie years due to those reasons. Two of those names have turned into very solid cornerbacks, but the point in the same, being a man corner that sees starter level snap counts generally creates statistically bad play since the transition from college to pro is so dramatic.

To throw out a couple significant compliments to DJ Hayden’s play from day one he was a very good and very physical tackler. His work against the run game was prevalent and although he struggled tackling Demaryius Thomas, he was a force on the outside against screens and the run game alike even forcing a fumble on an impressive hit on a receiver screen week five.

Comparing Hayden

In order to really put Hayden’s rookie year in perspective, I want to compare him to a guy that has a very similar skill set. Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson is widely thought of as one of the NFL’s best young cornerbacks and he specializes in man coverage. He at times struggled in press coverage his rookie year, but learned to overcome his issues to become a very solid cornerback. Here are the statistical highlights from profootballfocus.com of Patrick Peterson’s rookie year:

Qb Rating against: 85.0 Catch %: 59.3 3 tds 2 ints 67 rec

869 yards 198 yac 13.0 apc PPF grade -10.8 PFF grade @ 8 games -8.2

Best game 3.1 Worst game -6.5

Compare those numbers to DJ Hayden, just remember DJ only played eight games:

QB rating against 110 Catch % 65 3 tds 1 int 26 rec 376 yards

105 yac 14.5 apc PFF Grade -7.7 Best game 1.9 Worst game 4.0

The overall point is simple, man coverage rookie cornerbacks struggle. Both Peterson and Hayden were selected high on were on sub-par teams with defenses that struggled at times especially with pass rush. They both have similar skill sets, great recovery abilities, solid hands, and natural playmaking talents. Both players had terrible games in the middle of their rookie years, the difference is Peterson had an opportunity to learn from his and did, but Hayden suffered a sports hernia injury.

Grade: C

All things considered DJ Hayden was exactly what each and every Raider fan should have expected to get from a rookie cornerback thrust into significant duty on a defense with no other impact players. Fans view Hayden grudgingly because he was selected over players like Lotulelei or Richardson, both guys who have had solid rookie years but benefit greatly from significant talent around them. If Hayden was never hurt during his senior season he would have been a top five pick from day one of the scouting process and even though many fans disagree with the pick, there were many teams lining up to take Hayden in the first round. All in all, DJ struggled as most rookies do, but the future is bright for him and I am very excited to see his future growth. He can be an exceptional player.

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