KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Raiders cornerback D.J. Hayden’s draft status is a blessing and a curse. The No. 12 overall pick makes more than most his age, even with the new, slimming, rookie wage scale.
In Oakland, people know him. His jersey is popular in Raider Nation, with No. 25s all over Oakland Coliseum. On Sundays, that spotlight becomes an electron microscope.
Every pass thrown his way, every catch against him is analyzing and dissected at length. At some points, ad nauseam.
“It comes with the territory,” Hayden said. “I understand that expectations come with being a first-round pick, and that you’re going to be under a microscope all season. People always have something to say. I don’t pay any attention to it, whether it’s positive or negative. I’m focused on what I do and what I can control.”
Everybody has an opinion on how Hayden should play. He needs to be more aggressive. He needs to be physical with opponents, to use leverage in the bump-and-run. He needs to take better angles in pursuit and tackle with vigor. He needs to this, that and the other thing.
At times, fans forget the kid’s NFL career is five games old heading into Sunday’s game at Kansas City. He isn’t perfect, which is a problem if you’re a first-round pick.
The coaching staff isn’t worried about perception. They’re focused on continued improvement in the pursuit of perfection.
“He’s getting better, and he’s going to continue to get better,” Raiders head coach Dennis Allen said. “I think a lot of times when you have young players like that, everyone wants to jump to a conclusion early in the season. The key is, do these guys continue to develop? Do they continue to get better on a week-in and week–out basis? He’s getting more confident in what we’re asking him to do and the things that he’s capable of doing on the football field. I’m pleased with where he’s at. He’s got to continue to work and get better, and he’ll do that.”
The numbers show steady improvement. He allowed 13 catches over the first three games, and three receptions over the last two. That includes last week’s win over San Diego, when he gave up one reception on five targets over 68 snaps.
Oh, and he had an interception in the end zone that essentially sealed victory. The pick showed serious potential and the need for improvement. Hayden went horizontal and intercepted Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers in the end zone late in the fourth quarter.
Problem is, intended receiver Keenan Allen beat Hayden off the ball. Hayden let his man slant toward the post without disruption. For a beat, Hayden’s man was wide open. Allen called for the ball and, had Rivers thrown it on time, the Chargers would’ve scored a touchdown crucial to their comeback effort. Rivers held off a beat, which allowed Hayden to close and make an athletic play.
“That was a great play,” Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver said. “We hope he can build on that momentum, because that was a great football play. You saw all the guys go get him and celebrate right away. That’s how much they like him. We all do.”
Tarver appreciates Hayden’s improvement, but understands he must push the 23-year old to perform better.
“As long as you’re totally engaged and do what you’re supposed to do, then the learning accelerates, Tarver said. “If you’re thinking about something other than what you’re supposed to think about, well, then chances are you’re going to lose, but you’re going to miss out on that learning moment. And that’s when you need to stay in the moment. That’s what the great cover guys have. They have the confidence and attitude to say, ‘Come on, it’s you and I. I like it like this. Let’s go.’”
Confidence leads to aggressiveness, which Hayden’s coverage is lacking. That’s Allen and Tarver talking now, not an impatient fan base. He knows physicality must increase, especially on Sunday against a Chiefs offense that thrives on short, quick passes.
“The goal is to keep focused at the line of scrimmage, and disrupt the timing of a route,” Hayden said. “I’ll do whatever it takes. There are some situations where you need finesse and speed. Other times you have to be physical at the line. You have to be good at everything, consistently cover well and you have to pick the right spots to gamble a bit and make a big play.”
Big plays are coming, probably a bit slower that Raider Nation would like. Hayden has faith in the process, and is confident he’ll excel at an NFL level.
“I feel like I’m heading in the right direction,” Hayden said. “The last game was a positive step. I’m playing better and better. Each week, I learn something that helps me get more comfortable.”