A rundown of the Oakland Raiders recent history of first-round draft selections shows a list of high-risk and controversial picks. It includes JaMarcus Russell, Darren McFadden, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Rolando McClain in successive years from 2007 to 2010. Each had significant question marks ranging from Russell’s work ethic to McFadden’s fragility to Heyward-Bey’s rawness and to McClain’s schematic fit. Only one (McFadden) has survived the roster purging done by general manager Reggie McKenzie, who is entering his second year of rebuilding.
McKenzie was hired in 2012 to replace the once great Al Davis and erase his first-round mistakes, among a plethora of others, as soon as possible. But in the process of reshaping the roster, McKenzie took a big risk of his own, one bigger than Davis ever took: he drafted Houston cornerback D. J. Hayden No. 12 overall.
Hayden, a stunning prospect on tape, suffered an unusual injury last year in practice when he tore a vein near his heart. It happened following a collision with a teammate who kneed Hayden in the chest. Hits like that happen frequently — it’s the nature of a fast-moving sport — but Hayden’s injury isn’t typical at all. It rarely happens on the football field, and is more commonly found amoung car accident victims. It carries a 95 percent mortality rate, according to doctors, and Hayden happens to be one of the five percent who survived.
Let that sink in for a moment.
And now let it sink in that he is about to play football (again), a violent sport that features oft-injured players colliding with each other every play in similar ways to how Hayden’s injury first occurred. It has people asking questions about Hayden’s future. Will this injury ever happen again? Doctors say it’s highly unlikely, but so was the first one. What will happen when Hayden goes for a tackle? Will he be afraid? What about when he takes a hit from a teammate in practice?
On the other hand, what if he’s not afraid of contact, not lacking aggressiveness, and not injured again? So many questions and not one answer. There’s this, though: if he passes those tests with flying colors, he could become the best pick the Raiders have made in years and perhaps the best one in the entire 2013 draft.
McKenzie knew what he was doing when he selected Hayden. He knew that if Hayden stays healthy and lives up to his potential, he has the most physically talented cornerback in the 2013 class and an upper-echelon defender on his roster. Hayden has all the traits that make up a top-tier defensive back: size, short area quickness, recovery speed, and ball skills.
In a 2011 bowl game against Penn State, Hayden showed his short-area quickness and ball skills when he intercepted a pass on third-and-four late in the first half. He was lined up roughly seven yards from the wide receiver on the right side — the wide side — of the field before the snap. His soft alignment was part of a defensive disguise that saw the two deep safeties rotate at the last second to get a single-high look and leave him in off-man coverage.
At the snap, Hayden pushed back with his right foot and then his left. Those steps were made once again before Hayden shifted his eyes on the Penn State quarterback, who was in the midst of a three-step drop. When the passer’s third step hit the ground and he raised his shoulder to throw the ball to his right, Hayden stuck his right foot in the ground and burst toward the receiver running an out route.
He covered the ground with quick, choppy steps and closed in on the ball, which eventually came straight into his hands.
As impressive as Hayden’s ball skills are, his short-area quickness is even better. His foot quickness is reminiscent of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Darrelle Revis, although it should be noted that the comparison stops there. The similarity lies in their abilities to mirror receivers step for step.
For a good example of that, flip through the video below and watch Hayden cover at the five-minute mark. He’s at the top of the screen covering a wide receiver who uses a “foot fire” technique at the line. The receiver then jabs inside with his left foot and releases outside, only to release back inside prior to releasing outside again. He doesn’t end up shaking off Hayden, who is there every step of the way.
His mirror and ball skills are off the charts, which could lead to him quickly becoming a shutdown cornerback. That is, of course, if he realizes his potential and stays healthy.
It’s a risky proposition for McKenzie, who has been gutting and simultaneously improving his predecessor’s poorly constructed roster by taking risks of his own. The selection of Hayden could either make him look brilliant and secure his job, or boneheaded, and he’ll have one foot out the door.