With the seventh pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, the Oakland Raiders select…Darrius Heyward-Bey, Wide Receiver, Maryland…

[laughter ensues]

That was the reaction when the late Al Davis did something that was so very Al Davis in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft, selecting an nondescript Maryland wide receiver over the decorated Michael Crabtree of Texas Tech.

Football fans of the 31 other franchises laughed until their cheeks hurt at another draft blunder by Davis, while Oakland Raiders fans booed like they had never booed before. Now in hindsight it was a predictable pick by Davis, who loved speed like no one else, but initially it still came as a shock; why would Davis select Darrius Heyward-Bey over MICHAEL CRABTREE?

Heyward-Bey was one of the most raw wide receivers I had ever evaluated out of college at the time. He didn’t have much experience with the route tree, occasionally running a Post pattern that crossed the middle of the field, but otherwise he was frequently seen catching flanker screens and leaving the opposition to only read the back of his jersey as he sprinted into the end zone.

But three years later, a window in which receivers tend to spread their wings and become adult pass catchers, Heyward-Bey has settled into the NFL and made the impact that Davis knew he was capable of when he made his surprise pick. Last season Heyward-Bey caught over 60 passes for nearly a thousand yards, which equated to slightly over 15 yards per catch —  impressive double-digits that topped Crabtree’s.

Despite having to work with three quarterbacks last season, “DHB” produced and showed improvement in his game, particularly with his hands and route running. He’s still raw, but he’s made long strides since coming into the NFL and he’s likely to only improve as he furthers his career. One reason for his positive outlook is the way the Raiders offense has used him, putting him in situations that play to his strengths as he continues to blossom.

He ran a significant amount of horizontal patterns that give him a natural advantage against defensive backs who are giving a large cushion out of fear of his speed. The Raiders threw a significant amount of speed-outs, square-ins (“China”), slants, and deep horizontal patterns, such as Dig routes that attacked the middle of the field. He was given the ball in open space, subsequently enabling him do damage after the catch.

An example came during a week 17 game against the San Diego Chargers this past season when DHB caught a pass and extended the yards gained to 39 by eating up real estate after the grab. The Raiders came out with a single back set and Twin receivers to the left of quarterback Carson Palmer before the snap — a formation that can cause some problems with keys for the defense, but it’s also a bit predictable because a two-man combination concept by the receivers is likely.

Prior to the snap, cornerback Antoine Cason (#20) lined up across from Heyward-Bey and gave him a significant cushion. Cason was in a loose alignment before the snap because he respected the vertical ability of Heyward-Bey, who only a week earlier recorded a 53-yard catch in overtime against the Chiefs that helped to set up a game-winning field goal.

DHB stands at the bottom of the screen with a large cushion to eat up.

At the snap, Heyward-Bey was off to the races and quickly ate up the cushion that was given to him by Cason. As he approached the defender, he firmly planted his inside foot into the ground and made a break inside toward the middle of the field. He was en route to a Dig pattern, which saw him run behind his slot receiver teammate who had run a Post pattern (more on that later).

Heyward-Bey plants and sets his sights to the middle of the field.

After Heyward-Bey made his precise incision and ran toward the heart of the San Diego defense, Palmer found him on a throw that he leaped for, secured, and brought down. It seemed like a routine catch; after all, it is his job to, you know, catch footballs. But it wasn’t routine a season ago, when Heyward-Bey would sometimes let the ball hit him between the numbers and drop to the ground like a sack of potatoes, or when he didn’t see it at all as he attempted to run before even grasping it. In a few words, it was probably a catch that he wouldn’t have made a year ago because of a lack of trust in his hands.

DHB brings the ball in.

But the 2011 season was different. After he made the catch, he was able to find the open space, gain more yards, and further cut down the distance between the offense and the end zone with every yard he covered.

The reason the empty space had been open was because of the other route by Denarius Moore, the slot receiver. Moore ran a Post pattern into the middle of the field and occupied two defenders, including the cornerback (pictured at the top of the image) who’d been responsible for the deep third of the field. So much for that.

Heyward-Bey takes advantage of the open space created by Moore.

The play concluded in a 39-yard gain after Heyward-Bey was pushed out of bounds by a Chargers defender. It was a significant play that helped to finish off what was a wonderful season for the young receiver.

Despite receiving yet another new offensive coordinator (and head coach) this offseason, Heyward-Bey seems primed to breakout in 2012. He’s continued to develop his game and progress consistently throughout his three years in the NFL, and the Raiders’ new offense will likely enhance his skills further since it has ties to the West Coast Offense. He’ll continue to run horizontal patterns that stretch the defense wide and force DBs to run after him, which is always a losing position against a wideout with Heyward-Bey’s speed.