D.J. Hayden’s practice snaps are monitored with an eagle eye. The 2013 first-round pick was thought to be the Raiders’ top cornerback following an offseason without veteran reinforcements, but Hayden’s shuttled back and forth between the first and second units, from outside corner into the slot.
Information has been siphoned from these movements in an attempt to figure out where he sits in a cornerback hierarchy that also includes T.J. Carrie and Keith McGill.
Hayden is the No. 12 overall pick from 2013. McGill was No. 116 in 2014. Carrie was No. 219 that same year.
Draft status suggests Hayden should be on top. At this stage, all three guys are in the mix. All three will be heavily involved, no matter who starts and who enters in sub packages. That will be worked out in the preseason.
“I know I’m going to play,” Hayden said. “And I know that, when my opportunity comes, I’m going to make the most of that chance. I’m certain of that.”
There’s an edge to Hayden these days -- an air of confidence immune to outside criticism or expectations.
Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie went young at cornerback, declining to add veterans at the position as he has in years past. There is no safety net should the experiment fail.
“They wanted to stick with young guys,” Hayden said. “They believed in us. We’re the guys they’re putting faith in. We have to get the job done, and we will.
“I’m definitely going to make plays to help this team win this year.”
The Raiders believe that will be the case. They see a player on the rise, finally able to develop without injuries slowing his progress. Hayden missed his first training camp and the last eight games of his rookie year with various injuries. He missed the 2014 offseason program and six games of that regular season with a fractured foot. Hayden's been healthy since a Week 8 return, which has helped improve his play and his psyche.
“We’re seeing big strides in him,” defensive backs coach Marcus Robertson said. “…A lot of that comes from health. He hasn’t had any issues, and you gain confidence with every rep he gets right. That’s how you learn what you can and can’t do.
“D.J. is a guy who has all the tools. He’s still developing, but I think the sky’s the limit for him. He has to continue to work at it every day, which isn’t a problem for him because he wants to be one of the best in the league.”
Raiders coaches have lauded his play during camp. While he’s made some nice plays, Hayden has struggled covering an improved Raiders receiver corps featuring Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree.
Hayden has plenty of speed and solid footwork, but his awareness with the ball in the air has allowed receptions despite decent coverage.
“Our corners have to play smart. That’s the most important thing,” Robertson said. “In D.J.’s case, he has to be able to win at the point of attack on the outside part of the field. We’re expecting that out of him.”
Hayden will be a contributor whether he starts or not. A lot of snaps means he’ll have an opportunity to prove himself worthy of a lofty draft pick.
“I want to be on the field,” Hayden said. “If (defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.) needs me to play in the nickel, I’ll do it. If he needs me to start on the outside, I’ll do it. Whatever the job is, we’re going to get it done. It’s that simple.”