On Wednesday afternoon, one day after undergoing hernia surgery, DJ Hayden saw his rookie season end prematurely after Dennis Allen and the Oakland Raiders placed the rookie on injured reserved. November 6th has not been kind for the cornerback. On that day of this year, Hayden picked up what was originally perceived as a groin injury, it was an injury sustained exactly one year to the day of Hayden’s near fatal collision he suffered on a University of Houston practice field. On that day in 2012, Hayden collided with a teammate in practice and battled for his life after the accident tore a valve inside his heart. Hayden eventually prevailed the freakish wreck and caught the eye of Reggie McKenzie, the newly minted general manager of the Oakland Raiders. In fact McKenzie’s opinion of Hayden was so high, he took a leap and drafted the cornerback with his first selection in the 2013 NFL draft. Hayden walked out of New York City with a black Raiders cap on his head and the pressure of living up to his 12th overall selection placed squarely on his shoulders. DJ Hayden’s perilous journey to Radio City Musical Hall provided Raider Nation a litany of admirable talking points when speculating on the young Hayden. Now after playing eight games, what kind of conclusion can be drawn from Hayden’s first year in the Silver and Black?
Frankly, it is lukewarm, leaning more on the cold side. Calling Hayden a bust and a hack would be ill advised considering how he began the season and that the simple fact that he is a rookie. But labeling him as a sure fire answer to the secondary is rooted in the same ignorance as the former. As tepid and moderate as it sounds, Hayden will need more reps before a full evaluation of his contributions is complete.
Remember because of Hayden’s traumatic finale to his collegiate career, the cornerback had to undergo abdomen surgery in the offseason and was not able to bring upon any duress to his rehabilitating body, so much so that he missed everything from minimal action like OTA’s, to more demanding reps like preseason bouts. Hayden’s only appearance in the preseason came in the final game against the Seattle Seahawks. For a rookie not to be assimilated into the pace of the NFL because of a major health concern, obviously has significant drawbacks. And it has been evident throughout his eight game tenure in Oakland.
Hayden played in week one against the Indianapolis Colts and has had a roller coaster of season, leading up to his horrific, final performance against the Philadelphia Eagles and the history making, Nick Foles. Prior to becoming a pin cushion for Chip Kelly‘s aerial assault in week eight, Hayden was able to make a few outstanding plays, none more memorable than his interception against the Sand Diego Chargers‘ Phillip Rivers, in the game’s dying moments.
There were times he was incinerated on routes and there was times he played stride for stride with receivers. There were occasions when he missed tackles and perpetuated an opponents’ false evasiveness, and then there were instances where he wrapped up adversaries with textbook precision. I even recall one forced fumble against Kansas City.
Hayden has made strides this season along with a myriad of errors, understandable for any NFL rookie, especially one who is returning to football after a massive injury. But what some Raider fans will not find understandable is the level as to which the organization went to get the Houston native.
Defensive coordinator, Jason Tarver, has done an fantastic job in reshaping the Raiders defense from overpaid, unmotivated slugs, to a unit that is emboldened by the sum of their parts and keeping the Raiders in games. Obviously the trouncing against Philadelphia continues to provide the detractors a rotting carcass to pick at, but considering the talent pool going into the season the defense has done an admirable job. Most of these men, like veteran and Raider favorite, Charles Woodson, are signed to one year deals. Not to mention that most are playing on “dead money.” Perhaps, that has provided the extra motivation for this unit to stake their claim defensively speaking. Hayden on the other hand is not part of this audition squad.
Having been the team’s first choice in the draft, Hayden’s deal is a four-year deal with a fifth-year team option that must be exercised between his third and fourth professional season. That contract is standard for first-round draft picks under the NFL rookie wage scale. On the money side of things, Hayden received a $5.88 million signing bonus and will see his contract divided as such: his base salary will be $405,000 this year, $495,000 in 2014, $585,000 in 2015 and $675,000 in 2016. After all is said and done, Hayden has the potential to earn $10.28 million over the course of his contract. Galactic type pay for you and I, but still relatively down to Earth as far as NFL draft picks go.
Unlike Hayden’s defensive teammates, his money and roster spot is all but guaranteed for 2014. And while that year will be big for Hayden as he will comeback from injured reserve, it is also going to be a huge year for Reggie McKenzie.
McKenzie will have nearly $70 million in salary cap space to work with along with a far deeper draft than perviously experienced (thanks Carson Palmer). All eyes will be on McKenzie and many pupils will be wide open with the sharpest scrutiny. We all know of the calamitous decision to sign Matt Flynn, a quarterback who would probably lose his place on the depth chart to one of the cartoonish characters featured on the Backyard Football video games. Although not as traumatic, Hayden’s selection especially in light of Flynn’s failure, has some Raiders scratching their heads. If both of McKenzie’s biggest acquisitions thus far are busts, will Raider Nation and more importantly, Mark Davis, consider him a competent general manager?
Hayden, whose hallmark trait of bearing fast feet was put to the test numerous times this season with varied results, has shown that he probably could have been acquired later in the draft. Technically, he was chosen later in the draft after the Raiders traded down their third placed position, but even McKenzie has expressed that his adulation for Hayden would have propelled him to take the cornerback third overall had the option for trading down refused to present itself. It did, but even then, Hayden’s diminutive size for the position, 5’11” and 191 pounds, makes you wonder if the Raiders could have drafted this player further down the totem pole. Logic says yes.
For what it’s worth, Hayden is not the priciest draft pick in recent Raiders history. The mere mention of Darrius Hayward Bey and Rolondo McClain are two undebatable reasons for me to leap out of my chair and polish off that Costco sized bottle of Gentleman Jack whiskey lurking inside my kitchen cupboard. Those two, along with several other 1st round draft picks for Oakland, were terrible. Hayden will be eager to recover strongly and ensure Raiders fans that history doesn’t repeat itself.
The team has equaled their win total for last year and await a flood of green to begin the season next year and now at 4-6, picking where to be optimistic about this team has become a ritual I’ve become begrudgingly accustomed to in recent years. However when discussing Hayden and McKenzie’s decision to summon him, it is necessary and frankly rational at this point and time.
I just hope that in 2014, DJ Hayden doesn’t prove that my previously stated sense of optimism and 1,000 plus words used in assembling this article, appear to be ghostwritten by Gentleman Jack Daniels himself.
Follow Jeremy on twitter @jermg11