Last year when the 2013 Oakland Raiders rookies were getting ready for their first season, first round selection DJ Hayden was recovering from one of the worst injuries in college football history. An injury suffered at University of Houston practice where the highly touted senior nearly died right at the practice facility.
A hit ruptured Hayden’s inferior vena cava, and now famously Hayden survived and luckily remained able to continue to pursue his dreams of being an NFL player when he was drafted in the first round by the Raiders in last year’s draft. General manager Reggie McKenzie ignoring Hayden’s injury history to take the player he felt was one of the best defensive players in his class based on an impressive Junior season and great athleticism that stood out on film.
Still Hayden had setbacks in 2013, having to sit out of OTA’s due to a second surgery process from his life threatening injury. When he returned he had to wear a red “no contact” jersey that kept him out of the majority of the preseason. Keeping Hayden from having the same preparation that he would have if not for his unfortunate injury in Houston.
Hayden suffered another injury setback during the season following his worst game as a pro against the Philadelphia Eagles, putting a sour note on a rookie season that looked promising after Hayden’s ballhawking abilities proved crucial in the brightest moment of the team’s season in their home win against the San Diego Chargers. A key interception helping seal a win over their AFC West rivals in front of the Black Hole.
Still the images of getting burned against the Eagles and his injury problems have led to cynical parts of Raider Nation jumping the gun on Hayden’s potential, some quick to tag the player who has played just one half of an NFL season with the “bust” label. A silly suggestion considering Hayden’s long career ahead of him, the now second year Raider has used his negative experiences to come into Raider OTA’s as one of the most impressively built players thanks to adding 10 pounds of muscle in his first full offseason program.
Bulked up and finally 100% healthy, head coach Dennis Allen has been impressed with what he has seen from Hayden so far during OTA’s. Noting that Hayden had challenges in 2013 that no other player likely faced.
“I think he’s light years ahead of where he was at this point last year,” Allen said. “Not just from a physical standpoint, but really from a mental standpoint too. I think he realizes now that everything’s going to be fine, he’s going to be OK, and now he can really focus on getting better as a football player.”
“I like what I’ve seen out of DJ so far,” Allen said. “He still has a lot of things to learn, still kind of a quasi-rookie out there, but I’m looking forward to his development and I think there are some good things in store for him.”
Hayden himself noted that a lack of preseason prep was hard to swallow, having to watch on the sidelines after being so excited to start his NFL career.
“Here are all my teammates out there working and I’m hooked up to IVs,” Hayden said to Scott Bair of CSN Bay Area. “It might mess up anyone’s head a little bit.”
“It definitely sucked.” Hayden said of his injury plagued rookie campaign. Those were the cards that I was dealt, so I just had to play them right.”
The jury is still out on exactly how Hayden’s NFL career will pan out. Far from being even close to a “bust” Hayden has a lot of time to prove why the Oakland Raiders had the faith to select him in the first round. Showing flashes of high upside during his short rookie season, there is hope that a full offseason and more experience will help Hayden breakout in 2014. Already putting in the work to get his body ready, Hayden’s progress to becoming a starting cornerback for the Raiders should be one of the key 2014 storylines for the Raiders. Looking back at his dramatic 2013, there is really nowhere Hayden can go but up.