Make no mistake; every NFL team would love to have a Darrelle Revis. Not every team would be willing to take a risk on his knee and pay him what he demands, but every team would love to have his consistent production. Revis is still the prototypical cornerback that everyone wants because he does everything well and can shadow and shut down No. 1 receivers.
When looking at the 2013 rookie class, only one has the chance to be the next Revis, and it isn’t the player that replaced him in New York. The next Revis is actually University of Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden.
In what was a one of the biggest surprises of the draft, the Oakland Raiders traded down from No. 3 to No. 12, didn’t draft University of Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and selected Hayden. The Raiders were even willing to take Hayden at No. 3 if no trade had materialized.
Drafting Hayden that early only makes sense if he can be the next Revis.
When a team drafts a cornerback that is—at worst—the third overall player on its board, he is expected to become one of the best in the league. The expectations should be high, and comparing Hayden to one of the best cornerbacks in the league shouldn’t be that much of a stretch.
The Athletic Comparison
Revis is 5’11” and 198 pounds and ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash at his pro day prior to the 2006 NFL draft. Up until that point, Revis was considered a cornerback that should go at the end of the first round and he ended up going 14th overall to the Jets.
Hayden is 5’11” and 191 pounds and ran between a 4.33-second or 4.42-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, depending on the source. Up until that point, Hayden was considered a cornerback who should go in the second or third round, but he ended up going 12th overall to the Raiders.
In Hayden’s case, he was also coming off one of the most unique injuries in the history of the draft. After tearing his inferior vena cava in a November practice, an injury that is almost always fatal, Hayden lost 30 pounds. Just four months after the injury, he was running a blazing time at his pro day.
At least from a size and speed perspective, Revis and Hayden are quite similar. If the latter can add a few more pounds after he gets into an NFL weight room, the difference between the two will be very hard to discern.
Level of Competition
We can make athletic and size comparisons easily, but the real test will be once Hayden faces the best receivers in the world. Outside of Hayden’s injury, for which he is now totally cleared, the biggest concern about him was the level of competition he faced playing in the Conference USA.
Teams aren’t going to disclose which players they really like, which left only a handful of media members with access to game film the opportunity to truly evaluate Hayden.
The only games available to the general public were two 2011 games and one 2012 game against UCLA—not enough for amateur draft scouts to give Hayden a complete evaluation and ease the concern about the level of competition he faced.
Mike Mayock of NFL.com elevated Hayden above Dee Milliner on his draft board just days before the draft, citing his performance against Louisiana Tech’s Quinton Patton. Rich Eisen of NFL.com asked Mayock on his podcast who had been a "tape warrior" and Mayock shared this story about Hayden:
I got a bunch of phone calls while I was on the road in March doing pro days:
"Have you done the Houston kid yet on tape?"
I was like, ‘no, because of the medical’ and they’re like:
"Hey, he just ran 4.38 at his pro day; you better go watch his tape."
I went back and put three of his tapes on the next morning. I was all pumped up; I love these kinds of things and five teams called me in the same day.
"Did you watch D.J. Hayden?"
So the next morning at 5:30 in the morning, I got D.J. Hayden on and I’m like:
"Man, that’s a great tape."
I put his second one in.
"HA! This kid can play man, he can play off, he can play press, he tackles."
Then the third tape was Louisiana Tech and they got Quinton Patton, who is probably a second-round wide receiver, and D.J. Hayden got in his jock and shut him down: four catches, 36 yards, kid couldn’t get off the line of scrimmage.
About the same time that Mayock was coming to the conclusion that Hayden was the top cornerback, Greg Cosell of NFL Films was doing the same. Cosell appeared on the Yahoo!’s The Shutdown Corner Podcast and said some pretty interesting things about Hayden (via the Santa Clara Press Democrat):
I watched four games of D.J. Hayden this week, and I’m telling you it was the first time I’d ever seen him play, and as I’m watching I say, 'Wait a second, this guy’s the best corner in the draft.' My guess is he won’t be drafted as such. But on film to me, he was the best corner in the draft. He has the naturally quickest feet of any corner in the draft. His backpedal was the most fluid. His balance and body control was absolutely remarkable. He was a sudden mover. He was competitive. He played the run. To me, he was the most physically gifted corner in this draft class.
Typically a late-riser on draft boards is due to tomfoolery by NFL teams, but Hayden’s hype appeared to be real. Despite two of the most respected analysts being high on him, there were still some questions about Hayden’s ability because his performance against Patton never really saw the light of day…until now.
When Revis was at his best in 2009, the Jets allowed league lows in yards per attempt and touchdown rate despite an average pass rush. Revis had a huge impact on the entire defense because he did everything so well, including playing off-man coverage.
Matt Bowen of the National Football Post calls off-man coverage the hardest thing to play at the NFL level. Bowen also cites Revis as a guy who is a top-tier defensive back because of his ability to play both off- and press-man coverage.
Off-man is the most difficult because it requires the defensive back to “stay on top with enough cushion to turn (their) hips and run, or to plant and drive downhill on the comeback, curl and dig.” The cornerback will either have single-safety help over the top or none at all.
Hayden displayed excellent off-man coverage skills in the matchup against Patton. In this example, Houston is using Cover 1, which means single-safety help for Hayden and the other defensive backs.
Hayden shows like he’s going to press Patton, but drops off the line just before the snap. Louisiana Tech has three receivers to the left, meaning Hayden can’t totally rely on the deep safety to be there for him. Notice Hayden’s eyes are on the quarterback.
Hayden gives himself adequate cushion to turn and run with Patton if needed, but he also trusts his instincts. The quarterback hadn't even released the ball and Hayden had already stuck his foot in the ground to drive forward and eat up the cushion he had given Patton.
With the ball in the air, the entire cushion is gone and Hayden is draped all over Patton. Hayden is there so quickly that he has to be careful not to commit pass interference. The quarterback sails the pass, perhaps expecting Patton to shake free like he did the rest of the season.
Hayden has great awareness and is able to turn, run and dive to try to make the interception. The ball lands just out of Hayden’s reach, but the fact that he was anywhere close to making the interception is remarkable.
The Raiders had a two-time All-Pro cornerback in Nnamdi Asomugha who thrived playing press-man coverage for years, but he struggled when asked to play other coverage types with the Philadelphia Eagles. Like Asomugha, Hayden can play press-man coverage, but he’s not just a one-trick pony.
Bowen says that press-man coverage is all about hand placement and being a physical football player:
If you can use those hands to disrupt the release of the WR, keep leverage and play to the hip of the route, you will be in a position to make a play.
You’ll notice in this example that Hayden is playing press-man at the goal line on Patton. A mistake here means six points for Louisiana Tech.
Hayden strikes the chest plate of Patton, disrupting the route and forcing Patton to run around him to try to get open. Hayden could have been more physical, but at the goal line, it’s more important to make sure the receiver doesn’t get separation.
Hayden drops into Patton’s "hip pocket" and mirrors his release. Even the bravest quarterbacks wouldn’t throw into such tight coverage.
If the quarterback were to take a chance, Hayden is in perfect position to make a play as he rides Patton’s hip across the back of the end zone. Patton gets absolutely zero separation from Hayden, and the quarterback is forced to pull the ball down. He is eventually tackled before he makes it into the end zone.
Some cornerbacks can cover, but not every cornerback is willing to make plays in the run game. If a defensive coordinator wants to use Cover 2 schemes, he needs to be confident his cornerbacks can come up and make a tackle.
If a cornerback can come help in run support while playing man coverage, that’s an even bigger bonus.
Hayden’s willingness and effectiveness supporting the run gives a defensive coordinator great flexibility to use whatever coverage is best for the situation.
One play after Hayden stuck to Patton like glue at the goal line, he made this play in the run game. Louisiana Tech comes out in the pistol formation with three running backs and two receivers. Hayden is again using press-man coverage on Patton to the outside.
Hayden is savvy enough to peek into the backfield only to see the running back getting the ball at the 7-yard line.
As the Houston defense strings the Louisiana Tech running back to the outside, Hayden fights off Patton’s block, plants and explodes forward to attempt the tackle.
Hayden lowers his pad level and puts a big hit on the running back, knocking his own helmet off in the process. Hayden had to come out for a play by rule, and Louisiana Tech scored a touchdown on the following play.
There are some cornerbacks who thrive in zone coverage who aren’t very good in man coverage. Some defensive schemes don’t even ask the cornerbacks to do both because finding players who can do so effectively are rare.
Revis actually has underrated zone coverage skills that give a defense a lot of flexibility; he’s just so good shutting down No. 1 receivers in man coverage that the Jets didn’t use him in zone coverage very often.
Hayden is that same kind of rare cornerback who can play zone and man coverage.
The Raiders will love the different things they can do with Hayden that they wouldn’t dream of doing last season with a depleted secondary.
The best zone cornerbacks are intelligent, understand offenses and are able to trust their instincts to make plays on the ball. On this 3rd-and-10 play, Hayden understands that Louisiana Tech is just trying to get to the first down.
Hayden drops to the first-down marker, keeping his feet under him so he can quickly break on an underneath pass and make the stop to force fourth down.
As the quarterback starts to throw, Hayden breaks on Patton’s route.
You may notice that Hayden is the only player to break hard on the underneath route as the rest of the defense continues to sit at the first-down marker. The obvious goal for the defense is to prevent the first down, but Hayden’s instincts told him he would either be able to make a play or force the throw to go elsewhere.
Although Louisiana Tech would get the first down by beating the zone to the flat on the opposite side, Hayden’s zone technique and instincts were excellent. If the quarterback had tried to force feed Patton, Hayden would have been in position to make a play on the ball.
This is the kind of technique you want to see from a good zone cornerback. Hayden will make plays, force quarterbacks to come off their primary read and help Oakland’s pass rush. These are the same qualities Revis possesses and why he is the highest-paid cornerback in the entire league.
Not There Yet
Although Hayden has the skills to be the next Revis, that doesn’t mean he’s already there. NFL offenses are significantly more complex than the ones he faced in Conference USA.
It sometimes takes a little time for a young cornerback to put it all together, so there will be some growing pains. One shouldn’t expect Hayden to shadow No. 1 receivers as a rookie, and he’ll probably get burned a few times too.
Hayden also has a tendency to get overly physical when the ball is in the air, which could result in pass interference penalties (he had two against Louisiana Tech). The good news is that Hayden wasn’t committing pass interference because he got beat or was out of position.
There was also at least one instance that Hayden was fooled by a play-action fake, had to flip his hips early to run with Patton and got beat by a double move. These are the types of little things Hayden will need to improve at the pro level if he wants to be an elite cornerback.
Hayden is not a finished product, but he does have the whole package.
With the right coaching and hard work, Hayden will become the next Revis. It might be a miracle Hayden is alive, but it will not be a miracle if he develops into one of the best cornerbacks in the entire league.
Special thanks to the University of Houston for providing the game tape and making this piece possible.