Programming note: Watch Thursday’s Raiders press conference with Dennis Allen, Jason Tarver and Greg Olson streaming live right here at 1 p.m.
D.J. Hayden has started growing a beard. The Raiders cornerback was clean-shaven when last we saw him, promising to improve upon his worst professional performance. That was after a Nov. 3 loss to Philadelphia, when Raiders spirits remained high and their first-round draft pick was a major contributor.
Hayden injured his groin a day later and was eventually placed on injured reserve following sports hernia surgery.
Then he disappeared from view, recovering physically and mentally from a rookie season gone awry. Hayden came back to the locker room on Wednesday, getting a souvenir football signed by his teammates.
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His beard marked the passage of time between health and a lost season that barely got started. The disappointment was taken in stride, with an optimistic focus on the futrue.
“I didn’t want my season to end, but it was a reality,” Hayden said. “That’s something I had to deal with. I had and have to make the best of what’s in front of me.”
What’s past was far more daunting. Hayden ruptured his inferior vena cava in a University of Houston practice on Nov. 6 – he injured his groin exactly a year later – but his pre-draft work helped him earn the Nov. 12 overall selection. Abdominal surgery to remove scar tissuefrom the original heart procedure kept him out of most offseason work and in a non-contact jersey through training camp.
Hayden was counted on to play outside corner in the nickel package. His efforts produced mixed results. Hayden was stellar at times, showing the footwork and timing that made him popular on draft day. He was flighty at others, overmatched by stronger, more aggressive wideouts.
He gave up 139 receiving yards and two touchdowns to the Eagles in his worst game as a pro, and got hurt just days later.
Hayden’s rookie season was imperfect, but the Texan owns the effort comfortably.
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“It’s my start,” Hayden said. “This season was a stepping stone for me. I got better, but I still have a lot of growth ahead of me. I can’t wait to work through it and get to the next stage of my development.”
Fairly or not, Hayden’s become a poster child for an oft-injured draft class that got hurt too often and didn’t produce enough. The jury remains out on this draft class and Hayden especially. The young player flashed great talent, though less frequently than expected from the No. 12 overall selection.
Coaches wanted Hayden to play aggressive football with the confidence he clearly lacks. Hayden believes a quality offseason can help him do that and better prepare for a sophomore season with even greater expectations.
“A full offseason will be key for my development,” Hayden said. Without any surgeries or anything ahead, I’ll be able to get my core strength back.
“I feel like I made strides last season, but I know I need to get bigger, faster and stronger. I need to be physically ready to ball out.”
In line image of D.J Hayden provided by The Associated Press