Cornerback Competition: DJ Hayden vs. Keith McGill


As reported by our very own Chase Ruttig, Keith McGill was seen getting more first team reps than DJ Hayden at Mini-Camp. Savvy NFL fans will know that Mini-Camp is not an indicator of what will take place once the regular season gets rolling, yet the news predictably drew out the annual Hayden Haters Club. The argument being, if Hayden is going to lose his spot at starting corner he’s obviously a bust and a waste of Oakland’s resources. It’s too early, even in the offseason to make those type of accusations. Still, the news was a curiosity, so let’s take a look at the two cornerbacks.

Whatever competition may be brewing in camp, it’s about performing better than average – a good sign for Raiders fans.

According to Pro Football Focus, DJ Hayden ended up just below average by the end of the season with an overall PFF Grade of -2.6. However, a lot of that was due to the Week 17 thrashing by Denver at Mile High. At the end of Week 16 Hayden actually ranked slightly above average with an overall grade of +0.5.  Both grades are higher than big name rookies like Kyle Fuller and Justin Gilbert, along with gazillionaire cornerback Patrick Peterson. Point being, even with Hayden not playing to his potential, he’s at least average in the NFL.

It’s important to start the comparison with acknowledging Hayden’s place at the mean of NFL cornerbacks. For this leads us to the conclusion that whatever competition may be brewing in camp, it’s about performing better than average – a good sign for Raiders fans. Hayden is regarded as a hard worker and intelligent guy around Raiders facilities, and he’s now entering his second offseason with full health. It’s highly unlikely he’s showing signs regression.

Disclaimer: McGill’s sample size of NFL snaps is too small for a legitimate evaluation. For the sake of the comparison we’ll look at them anyway, but with a bit of a grain of salt. McGill finished the season with a +0.6 overall PFF grade on 147 snaps. He was only thrown at thirteen times, and gave up 4 receptions, while defending two passes. However, two of those receptions were for deep yardage (18 and 31 yards respectively). Opposing QBs averaged a passer rating of 59.05 when throwing into McGill’s coverage.

Assuming these could stand over a full 16 game season, the passer rating and completion percentage (30.8%) would be incredible, though the deep passes would be intolerable for someone of McGill’s size and speed. Still, it’s too early to tell whether these numbers are real or happenstance.

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When it comes to the physical measurables, McGill has every advantage one could want in a cornerback. He’s so built for a Seattle-type defense many draft analysts were surprised to see him end up on any other team. McGill stands at 6’3″, weighing in at 211 pounds. Compare that to Hayden’s 5’11”, 191 pounds. McGill’s arms are 33, 1/4 inches long – insane length. With Ken Norton, Jr. coming from Seattle’s defense, this size alone might be worth giving McGill some first team reps at Mini-Camp.

Even for his size, McGill has surprising athleticism. He ran a 4.51 40 yard dash at the combine and has a 39 inch vertical leap. That’s great speed and incredible leaping ability for a cornerback of any size. Hayden didn’t participate in the combine, but did show a 4.42 40 yard dash at the Houston Pro Day (which was even rumored at 4.33).

Hayden has great hips and transitions smoothly, which is something that McGill always had issues with. McGill can out jump almost anyone on the high balls and has solid ball skills. Hayden generally plays stronger than his frame might indicate. he breaks on the ball with the best of them and is more than happy to close distance to make a tackle against bigger guys. McGill had a notorious reputation for not playing to his size and strength in college, but if anyone is going to demand that fix it’s Ken Norton, Jr.

In an ideal world, both players are improving and the reps are an indication of matching the players’ position with their natural talents. In an NFL where Nickel coverage is on field more often than not, the Raiders could really benefit from having McGill outside against a taller X receiver and Hayden playing against a savvier slot guy. However, the first-team reps could be due to the change in defensive scheme, the sensibilities of the new coaches, or simply for experimental purposes.

If Hayden is indeed still the better guy, perhaps he plays a Carlos Rogers role – outside on two CB sets, and in the slot on 3+ CB sets. If McGill is the better guy, bringing in Hayden as the 3rd CB is a solid option and should speak more to McGill’s growth than Hayden’s demise. Either way, offseason competitions such as Hayden vs. McGill are the few exciting narratives this time of year. As the new defensive scheme comes into focus, it’ll be exciting to see how the players push each other to improve and which Raiders rise to the top.