For two years, Darrius Heyward-Bey was an overdrafted height-weight-speed player that would never live up to his draft position. That's what most fans and members of the media believed, and few had any confidence left in him after two years, 35 receptions and countless drops.
Heyward-Bey spent a portion of the lockout at Jason Campbell's house, and a few people still believed in him, including Al Davis. It was a seesaw season for Heyward-Bey in 2011, starting slow, then rebounding, only to lose Campbell for the season due to injury. Heyward-Bey was benched, and then it took several weeks for him to gel with Carson Palmer. In total, Heyward-Bey had a breakout campaign which included 64 receptions for 975 yards.
Heyward-Bey is looking to make another jump in 2012 from solid receiver to dominant receiver and from one option to the No. 1 option. There are those that still question Heyward-Bey's ability to become anything more than a steady receiver in the NFL, but he's going to prove them wrong and become a dominant receiver in 2012.
Greg Knapp brings his version of the West Coast offense to Oakland. It's been almost a decade since Knapp had a dominant receiver; the last receiver to break 1,000 yards for him was Terrell Owens from 2001 to 2003.
Coincidentally, Owens was spotted catching passes from Palmer with the Raiders receivers and tight ends in Southern California this offseason, leading to widespread speculation that the Raiders would sign the veteran. The Raiders have quashed the rumor, but they might have a younger version of Owens in Heyward-Bey.
Heyward-Bey's third season at age 24 was shockingly similar to Owens' second season at age 24. Outside of Owens doubling up Heyward-Bey in touchdowns—a statistic that depends heavily on opportunity—you could argue Heyward-Bey's season was actually better.
Like Owens, Heyward-Bey has inconsistent hands and came out of college as an athlete before he developed into one of the best receivers of all-time. Owens developed into a great player in an older version of the offense Knapp will implement in Oakland this season.
One adjustment Hue Jackson and Al Saunders made last season was using Heyward-Bey in the short and medium-range passing game. Heyward-Bey just hasn't been very good tracking deep balls and jumping over defensive backs, but he runs good routes and knows how to get open.
The new offense will utilize the short and intermediate routes that Heyward-Bey feasted on in 2011 and the good chemistry and trust between the quarterback and receiver. Timing between Palmer and Heyward-Bey will be important, and they will have to be on the same page. Heyward-Bey's routes will have to be crisp, and Palmer must deliver the ball at the right moment for this offense to be successful.
Palmer and Heyward-Bey got on the same page towards the end of last season and continued working together in the offseason. It's that type of work ethic which enabled Heyward-Bey to have a breakout year in 2011. Not only has Heyward-Bey been working with Palmer in the offseason, but he worked with with Campbell last year during the lockout and was eager to start building chemistry with Palmer upon his arrival in Oakland last season.
Another reason Heyward-Bey will have a dominant season is because of the other offensive weapons in Oakland. Denarius Moore has been championed by some as the potential No. 1 target in Oakland, but he actually helps Heyward-Bey's pursuit of that distinction.
Moore usually draws the matchup with the best cornerback, and he's a deep threat that stretches the defense vertically, allowing Heyward-Bey to stretch the defense horizontally. The West Coast offense only occasionally takes a deep shot, and Moore's opportunities to haul in the deep pass are likely to be reduced.
Jacoby Ford and Darren McFadden also should help Heyward-Bey work the middle of the field by forcing linebackers and safeties to step up to support swing passes, fake reverses or screen passes. Heyward-Bey will find the soft spots in coverage as the defense collapses to try and limit the big play.
Having a tight end that can stretch the defense down the seam could further open up things underneath for Heyward-Bey, and the Raiders are hoping David Ausberry can develop into that type of receiving tight end. Even if Ausberry isn't up to it, the Raiders also have versatile receiving fullback Marcel Reece that can probably accomplish the same goal.
It's the fear of a big play by his teammates that will leave Heyward-Bey free to rack up first down after first down on opposing defenses. Heyward-Bey has the speed to turn a short gain into a big play as well, but the bend-don't-break defenses would rather try to stop him for short yardage than to allow Moore to catch a pass 60 yards down the field.
Everything is primed for Darrius Heyward-Bey to have a monster season, and the media is taking notice. Heyward-Bey is being tabbed as a breakout candidate by the likes of Steve Wyche of NFL.com and Steve Horton of Scouts, Inc. He's also caught Alen Dumonjic's attention, and he has some scouting notes posted on thescore.com. Worth noting that Dumonjic also writes for Bleacher Report.
Maybe my definition of a breakout is different, because I think 2011 was Heyward-Bey's breakout season and he's poised to have a dominant season in 2012. Maybe I'm just a year ahead of the curve on all things Heyward-Bey.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has a bet with Pete Prisco of CBS that Heyward-Bey will have 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns in 2012. I have a feeling Matt is going to be buying a lot of drinks at the 2013 Senior Bowl.