As unpredictable and dramatic the NFL is, there is always one truth, one word that will never change after 60 minutes on the gridiron: execution. Execution wins you games. Execution is the different between being flagged for having a brain fart at the line of scrimmage and converting a crucial 3rd down. Execution, defines your season and career. DJ Hayden, the starting cornerback for the Oakland Raiders, is learning in his rookie season this certainty first hand with varied results.
Hayden, 23, is the Raiders first round pick of the 2013 draft. Hayden garnered the admiration of Reggie McKenzie with a 12th overall selection and is viewed as a potential defensive star. But the Raider Nation has, understandably, viewed mixed outings from their newest member. Hayden made his debut in week one as the Raiders’ nickel cornerback despite missing action in training camp. Hayden has featured largely on the right side of the defense, playing next to and learning from veteran cornerback, Tracy Porter. Since opening the season at Indianapolis, Hayden has 18 tackles, 15 of which are solo, and one interception. He was decent against the Colts, sounds when awful Jaguars came to town, horrendous when facing the lethal Denver Broncos, non existent versus the Washington Redskins, and outstanding during the late night battle against the San Diego Chargers.
The Monday night game can be judged with a grain of salt for most NFL viewers because it was a road game against Peyton Manning who is in the mood to obliterate NFL records this year. But if anything, the hostile scenario exposed that Hayden is a rookie with some rust. Six missed tackles happened in the game, some of which were significant trip ups if you’re a half glass full kind of guy. That game also highlighted the cushion Hayden provided in coverage, which was inviting. Again, when Manning and Demaryius Thomas are your opponents, your coverage game can be at it’s best and still get taken for a ride. No matter how you see it, that whooping was a lesson learned for Hayden.[youtube id=”qe0eAd-Jdz8″ width=”600″ height=”350″]
Jump forward to week 5 and Hayden saw himself in yet another late night game against a division rival. Only this time, the crowd was draped in silver and black, the opponent was the Chargers, and the Raiders left the field with a win. Hayden played a monumental part in that game too, but for all the right reasons.
Hayden was targeted five times and gave up one reception against Philip Rivers, a big improvement after allowing 13 receptions in the first three weeks. He was tested in the end zone a couple of times and played them expertly, denying two touchdown opportunities and a Chargers comeback. Once touchdown denied was an airborne tackle resulting in a forced out and the other of course, was Hayden’s game sealing interception. Hayden had enough brass to hunt down a wide-open Keenan Allen in the back of the end zone and complete a diving pick.
As Hayden’s career grows week to week, so will his game. Tomorrow, when Hayden and the Raiders travel to Arrowhead Stadium to face Alex Smith and the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs, Hayden’s footwork and bump and run abilities will be test mightily. The Chiefs have been a revelation so far this season and distribute the ball quickly and often for short, but drive sustaining gains. As much as 49er fans will hate to admit, Alex Smith has looked great all season long. Some call it “managing,” a game, others call it winning. Hayden will need to play Smith’s receivers tight, force them to reroute, and show the same swarming presence that he exerted last weekend. Nothing is easy for a rookie cornerback in the NFL, so watch if Hayden executes on this front tomorrow morning. A seventh consecutive win in Kansas City is attainable for Oakland and Hayden can be the deciding factor.
You can follow Jeremy on Twitter @jermg11.