In today’s NFL, playing the cornerback position is quite possibly the hardest thing to do as a rookie after the quarterback position. From adjusting to the added NFL speed to keeping up with diverse routes most receivers run to the raised IQ of the quarterbacks, being successful as a defensive back first requires ample seasoning at the pro level.
Raiders cornerback DJ Hayden, who only played two seasons at the highest level of college football at Houston, played just 72 snaps in his first two weeks of his NFL career. On Monday Night Football, he was set to be one of the keys in trying to slow the top rated passing attack in the NFL when they travelled to Denver. Instead, the Broncos picked on the rookie for much of the night, making the Raiders brass a little nervous as they watched their first round pick struggle throughout the game.
Coming into this game, Bleacher Report’s AFC West Lead Writer Chris Hansen had this to say about Hayden’s play in the first two weeks of the season:
“Hayden's coverage has generally been very good and he has so far avoided any big mistakes. However, he hasn't yet showed off the ability to make plays like he did in college. Charles Woodson was recently quoted saying Hayden has left some plays on the field, so he's still learning and perhaps playing a little tentatively. It will be interesting how he does tonight against Demaryius Thomas, who is a step above Darrius Heyward-Bey and Cecil Shorts. He's not yet making the plays that the Raiders expect him to make, but that should come with experience.”
In 37-21 near blowout by the Broncos, the Raiders defense struggled as a whole. And unfortunately for him, the rookie DJ Hayden had potentially the worst game of any Raiders defender. While he didn’t allow any touchdowns in coverage, he did allow five catches on five targets to him in the game for 49 yards, and missed six tackles throughout the game, all on receivers in the passing game.
According to Pro Football Focus, he was Week 3’s 2nd worst cornerback in coverage in the entire NFL.
Hayden did see a drastic increase in his snaps on Monday night, likely because they both want to test the young cornerback to help him develop, and because he’s simply their 3rd best cornerback against a Broncos team that consistently runs three receivers.
In Optimum Scouting’s pre-draft scouting report of DJ Hayden, we alluded to the fact that “his transitions need cleaning up, as his footwork and balance must improve. His hip flex, long speed and explosiveness all suggest he can develop, but just two years of major college football could be what leads to his struggles.”
Against the Broncos, Hayden struggled mightily to adjust his feet as he played off coverage, and was consistently giving too much cushion on his inside routes. Also, when he was tested down the field, his transition vertically lacked fluidity, and he was unable to gain speed, flip his head, and make a play on the ball. On one occasion, he was called for pass interference inside the 10 yard line.
Hayden’s footwork and balance in off coverage should continue to improve throughout the season as he gets more comfortable with NFL receiver speed and the timing in his transitions. However, he’ll also need to get more physical in both press situations and when picking up and running with his receiver.
Finally, his tackling issues, which weren’t a major red flag out of college but were noted, certainly need to be corrected. The Raiders defense as a whole missed 19 tackles against the Broncos, so it seems to be a team-wide concern. But for a defensive back like Hayden, allowing six receivers on six missed tackles to leave your grasp and gain extra yards will continuously allow for teams to gain first downs.
Next week, the rookie Hayden and the Raiders defense will face off against the Washington Redskins, who are averaging just over 300 passing yards per game. Despite the Redskins being 0-3, they have plenty of offensive firepower to score 21+ points, something the Raiders offense has failed to do this season.
Oakland’s defense may rely even more on DJ Hayden next week, with starting cornerback Tracy Porter suffering a concussion against the Broncos and may be held out for next week’s game. That leaves Hayden to match-up with Pierre Garcon on the outside, one of the best receivers in the NFL so far this season.
The Raiders can’t afford to miss on another 1st rounder. They’re roster is depleted talent-wise already, and they’re anticipating DJ Hayden living up to the 12th overall selection the Raiders used on him. It’s still young in the cornerback’s career, but the Raiders are banking on him growing up quick. He’ll get plenty of chances to succeed this season, because they simply can’t afford for the rookie cornerback to fail.