First Round, 12th Pick
The NFL draft has its share of Cinderella stories every year, one where a player overcomes great odds to not just get drafted, but drafted rather high.
Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden could be the Cinderella story of this draft.
After a great season with Houston, Hayden suffered a life-threatening injury in practice late in the season when he tore the inferior vena cava in his heart. He has bounced back from it, however, and after a great pro day, looks like a solid prospect.
The big question is whether teams are comfortable enough to look past the major injury to give him a shot.
Hayden is quick enough to get off the line of scrimmage and keep up with wide receivers. He is also physical enough to battle them for deep balls when needed. His raw speed makes him one of the fastest draft prospects in the class.
On top of being able to keep up with receivers, he is able to tackle with ease and does not give up a pursuit easily if a receiver is able to get past him. His track record at Houston was great with four interceptions in nine games his senior year.
While his size and strength are decent, they are not elite, and an elite receiver may be able to outman him. His medical scare in his senior year is also a major red flag since the odds of him taking the field week one are slim despite his miraculous recovery so far.
Hayden is one of the fastest cornerbacks in the draft. Like other top cornerbacks, he can run a 40-yard dash in the 4.4 range, and while a 33.5" vertical leap and 10' broad jump are not elite numbers, they are still good and showcase his athleticism.
Hayden's injury is one of the most shocking stories I've read on a draft prospect. On a routine practice play, he was tackled on a play that tore his vena cava, a major vein of the heart. The injury has a 95 percent fatality rate.
He not only survived, but recovered enough in time to perform in Houston's pro day, and looked great there. That alone makes one have to root for the guy, even if he ends up on a rival team. It really is a miraculous story.
Before playing college football at Houston, he attended Navarro Junior College, leading Navarro to a 2010 title. For both squads, he was the top cornerback. As a result, he was focused primarily on man coverage against opposing teams' best receivers.
Playing the Ball
Cornerbacks do not run two interceptions back for touchdowns in a season without having great ball awareness. Hayden is able to read defenders and get his hands up at the right time. He is also able to get a pick if he is able to turn around quickly enough.
At the line of scrimmage, he is just as effective in figuring out quarterbacks, though his primary focus is naturally on the opposing wide receiver.
Against the Run
Hayden has no problem running towards the runner and making a tough tackle. Since he does not have elite size, he is susceptible to a good block and is generally better at tackling a wide receiver than a running back.
In man coverage, Hayden is in his element. From the line of scrimmage to the deep routes, he has no trouble staying with a receiver. He can make a play to swat the ball away or make an interception and he does not let wide receivers break free and go for touchdowns.
The only weakness in his man-coverage is that he tends to back off the receiver at times, letting them grab the ball before plowing him with a big hit. It does help when the receiver is near the first down marker though, as Hayden can know where they are and make sure the receiver does not cross that line.
While man coverage is Hayden's specialty, he is enough of a ball hawk to be effective in zone coverage. He is able to anticipate where the ball will go and be able to make a pick, or at least deflect the pass, allowing him more freedom to make a big tackle.
Hayden might be the most aggressive tackler out of the top batch of cornerbacks in the draft. He has no problem charging into a receiver and either bringing him to the ground or pushing him to the sidelines. He can also wrap up easily.
Just as importantly, he tackles clean. Many cornerbacks considered to be aggressive tend to lead in with the crown of their helmet or make questionable tackles that would be ripe for flags in the NFL. Hayden does not have those issues in his film.
Hayden has good hands and is able to swat the ball away if needed, but the way he plays the position is more about bringing the guy down if he gets to it or deflecting passes rather than trying to get an interception.
His awareness and footwork are great, especially at the line of scrimmage. He can figure out where players are moving to easily enough. More importantly is his ability to adjust and make a play elsewhere if the quarterback decides to throw to a different target.
Hayden projects best as a man-cornerback, someone who can pressure one of the team's better receivers. He's not a natural ball hawk, although he can be if needed, but he has no trouble making a receiver cough up a pass.
A team which already has one established cornerback and needs another solid defender on the other side would be an ideal situation for him. He would have no trouble at guarding a No. 2 receiver on any team and could handle top ones if needed.
Hayden's draft projection varies widely between the second and fourth rounds when both, his talent and health are considered. He is a wild card as to where he'll go.
Going solely on talent and presuming his health won't be a problem, I see him as a late pick in the first round. I would go so far as to call him a top three cornerback in the draft.