GREEN BAY, Wis. – Raiders cornerback DJ Hayden dropped back in coverage, followed his man down the right flank and appropriately turned to face the quarterback. A pass was headed his way and he got in front of the receiver, secured the interception and took off running for what would’ve been a pick six.
Monday’s interception was not an isolated incident.
Hayden made at least four in Raiders training camp, maybe more, and was often around the football while taking significant practice reps as the first-team slot cornerback and outside with the second unit.
His play marks a continuation of progress from the offseason program, which head coach Jack Del Rio considered a strong developmental period.
“It has felt good,” Hayden said on Tuesday. “I just have to apply what I’m doing out here to games.”
Hayden’s next opportunity comes Thursday against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, the second of four Raiders exhibition games and the last on the road.
He hopes to further strengthen what seems to be a secure spot as the team’s nickel back with game play.
Hayden believes practice play will translate after learning to make better and faster reads, after improving route recognition and what a receiver might do in certain formations. Hayden calls it “Football 101 stuff,” and that could combine with extreme speed and athleticism to form a quality NFL cornerback.
As we all know, Hayden was plagued by injury his first two seasons that hampered his development. Last year was his first healthy stretch, with mixed performance reviews during that span.
His play has always been put under a microscope, magnified by the distinction of being general manager Reggie McKenzie’s first first-round pick. That’s a tough way to grow up in the NFL, especially while dealing with health concerns on struggling teams.
The Raiders see progress and believe he made strides over the past three weeks working in Napa.
“He’s had a really good camp,” Del Rio said this week. “He’s done a nice job in the nickel role. I know the first-rounders constantly get it. That’s just part of the deal, I guess. He’s had a good camp.”
Hayden feels the same, and heads toward the regular season expecting to play well.
“The more good practices I have, the more confidence I get and the more plays are going to be made,” Hayden said. “I’m just excited. … I know it will be a big year. I’m ready to help this team win some games and hopefully a championship.”