Why Darrius Heyward-Bey Will Make His First Pro Bowl in 2012
At the beginning of the 2011 season, I thought that Darrius Heyward-Bey was the fourth or fifth best receiver on the Oakland Raiders. But after having watched him over the year, I have to say the man has won me over.
It's not that I didn't think that he would improve, but after his first two years, I didn't see it happening this much, this fast. For the 2011 season, Heyward-Bey ended up with 64 catches for 975 yards and four touchdowns.
His breakout season removed him from the bust list and led me to hop on his bandwagon. The improvement he made without an offseason leads me to believe he'll be scary next year with a full offseason, leading to his first Pro Bowl.
Turn the page to see why.
Darrius Heyward-Bey's improved hands are the most important improvement he has made, because without it, nothing else matters. He was embarrassing in his rookie campaign, dropping passes and unnecessarily jumping for passes at times.
Then in 2010, his second year, he started to look like a decent receiver, with a drop percentage of only 10.3 percent.
In 2011, he drastically improved that, cutting his drop percentage in half to 5.3 percent, and three of those drops were in one horrible quarter.
In fact, that 5.3 drop percentage has him in the top percentile of NFL receivers.
Improved Route Running
I knew the hands would get better, but I really questioned Darrius Heyward-Bey's route-running ability. In 2010, he hardly ever got open because he lacked the ability to separate from a defender.
In 2011, that started to change as Heyward-Bey started to get separation from defenders when he ran routes. It didn't just get better for Heyward-Bey from 2010 to 2011, it got better for him during the 2011 season.
It will get much better for him in 2012.
At the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine, Darrius Heyward-Bey ran what I saw to be a 4.25 40-yard dash. Something funny always happens between what we see on camera and what the officials post as his official time.
But what matters is who's the fastest on the football field, and he is surely that every time. That blistering speed is what gives him an edge in his route running as defenders play way off of him.
He really sells that go-route and breaks back toward the quarterback for easy catches. Then when the corner playing him gets tired of giving that away, Heyward-Bey sells the comeback and goes deep.
He is plenty skilled at running other routes these days, but these two routes alone are enough to keep opposing corners guessing.
Can Track the Deep Ball Now
Obviously in 2009, I criticized Darrius Heyward-Bey's hands. It was his route running in 2010 and inability to track down the deep ball in 2011.
You can put a check by all of those categories now, because by the end of the 2011 season, he started to track down deep balls.
This is obviously important because deceased Raiders owner Al Davis pick Heyward-Bey in the first round so he could catch the deep ball. After watching him at the end of the 2011 season, I wonder just what opposing defenses are going to try to do about him next year.
Coaching Staff Found a Strength
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Darrius Heyward-Bey has obviously improved some things, but Hue Jackson and Al Saunders seem to have found a strength in him early on.
It took him a while to be able to track down the deep ball, so they made use of Heyward-Bey on short routes, giving him opportunities to make plays after the catch.
At 6'2", 210 pounds, he's very strong to go with that speed, will break a tackle and take a catch all the way. That's just another way the Raiders can make a big play besides a deep ball or a run by superstar running back Darren McFadden.
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At the beginning of the season, all of Darrius Heyward-Bey's offseason work with quarterback Jason Campbell paid off. The two had developed quite a connection before Campbell was injured, and his numbers showed just that.
Then, as we know, Carson Palmer was traded for, and he seemed to favor rookie receiver Denarius Moore and second-year receiver Jacoby Ford.
After injuries to the two playmakers, Palmer was forced to turn to Heyward-Bey, and he didn't disappoint.
Now it appears that Heyward-Bey has become a favorite of Palmer's.
Darrius Heyward-Bey's speed scares defenders to death, and he has finally found a way to use that in his favor. He even has a drop percentage of a legitimate No. 1 receiver in the NFL these days.
His size, strength and speed give him the ability to break a tackle and take one to the house from anywhere, too. It's crazy to see how many of his flaws when he came out of college are fast becoming strengths.
And if he improves like he's been improving since coming into the league, he can't help but see a Pro Bowl in 2012. At the rate he's going, he won't have a weakness by the time the 2012 season rolls around.
Carson Palmer is sure to go to him now, so I predict 80 catches, 1,355 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012. From that comes Heyward-Bey's first trip to Hawaii to play in the 2013 Pro Bowl.
Some advice I have for him is to go see Jerry Rice, who's a former Raider and the best to ever do it at receiver. I'm sure he has been watching Heyward-Bey and has a ton of tips for him that would go a long way.
Just win, baby!