The Oakland Raiders surprised a lot of people when they selected cornerback D.J. Hayden out of the University of Houston in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft. The Raiders traded down to No. 12 to select Hayden, but general manager Reggie McKenzie would later say he was prepared to take him with the third overall pick.
Needless to say, the Raiders were high on Hayden, but he missed a lot of training camp after having scar tissue removed from his abdomen—a generally non-serious result of the serious surgery he had last fall that saved his life. Hayden still made his debut Week 1, but not as the starter.
Through three games as Oakland's nickel cornerback, Hayden's performance hasn't been very impressive. Hayden has been playing on the right side with veteran Tracy Porter sliding inside to the slot and has yet to make the impact plays that had me comparing him to Darrelle Revis before the season.
Hayden needs to bounce back in Week 4, and there's no reason to believe he can't. Hayden still has all the skills to be a great cornerback in the NFL, and every game is a learning experience. The cornerback position may be the toughest to transition from college to the NFL on the defensive side of the ball.
Hayden had an average performance in Week 1, a solid performance in Week 2 and a poor performance in Week 3 when he drew a matchup with one of the league's best wide receivers. Demaryius Thomas also happens to have the league's best quarterback throwing him the ball.
According to ProFootballFocus (subscription required), Hayden missed six tackles and was given a -4.9 coverage grade in Week 3. Hayden is now their 91st-rated cornerback out of the 95 that have played at least 25 percent of the time. Hayden is also the lowest-graded rookie on the list.
It's not exactly the way the Raiders probably hoped Hayden would start, but it's not the end of the world either. Three games is just three games.
Chicago's Charles Tillman, ProFootballFocus' third-best cornerback a year ago, is currently 93rd on the list of 95. The top two cornerbacks can both thank one huge performance for their overall grades. Similarly, Hayden's terrible Week 3 grade is why he's so far down the list.
One great performance this week against Pierre Garcon and Hayden will be right back where he needs to be. Unlike Thomas, Garcon isn't a big, physical guy as much as he is a great route-runner with fluid hips and speed. Hayden is a bit on the smaller side, so smaller, faster receivers are easier for him to cover.
Additionally, Hayden should be able to quickly correct many of his errors from last week, such as the missed tackles and the soft coverage. If Hayden can make a few quick corrections, there's no reason to believe he won't have a better performance in Week 4.
No all missed tackles are created equal. Hayden had a whopping six missed tackles against the Broncos, but slowing down a receiver in the open field enough to get help from a teammate is better than a complete whiff. Believe it or not, one of Hayden's missed tackles against the Broncos was actually a good play.
The Broncos probably call this wide receiver screen to Thomas about once a game. The left guard hustles out to block the cornerback while the center tries to reach the safety. If the cornerback doesn't make the tackle or at least slow down Thomas, it's usually a big play for the offense.
Hayden crashes in, ducks around the block of the offensive lineman and gets enough of Thomas' legs to give Kevin Burnett and Christo Bilukidi time to recover and make the stop. It was 3rd-and-10, and this play forced Denver's only punt of the night.
Some tackle attempts also have higher degrees of difficulty than others. It's a lot easier to tackle a player in traffic than in open space, and it also gets harder to tackle when players are moving at a higher rate of speed. There's a reason the term gang tackling is part of the football vernacular.
On Eric Decker's 61-yard catch in the second quarter, Hayden had to hustle over from the opposite side of the field. Hayden was running full speed to try to get over to help Brandian Ross.
Credit Hayden for taking a good angle and sprinting all the way across the field. He missed the tackle, but still saved the touchdown because it allowed Ross to catch up and trip up Decker. Hayden should have broken down down as he got closer to Decker so he didn't overrun the play, but that's something he can correct.
Even though Hayden missed a lot of tackles, the adjustment should be pretty easy for him to make. Hayden did a good job of at least tripping up and slowing down the offensive players, he just had trouble wrapping up and bringing the big-bodied receivers of the Broncos to the ground.
One of the reasons Hayden was slightly off the mark and Denver's receivers ran through his arm tackles was because he was dropping his head right before contact. As coaches would say, you can't hit what you can't see. As you can see from his tackle attempt on Decker, Hayden dropped hit eyes right as Decker changed directions.
If Hayden keeps his eyes on his target and breaks down instead of going for the big hit, he can easily correct this flaw in his game. In Hayden's defense, the Raiders have asked Hayden to be more aggressive, and his missed tackles didn't really hurt the team because there was always another player coming in to help.
All six of Hayden's missed tackles came on receivers or tight ends in coverage. The perception is often that missing tackles means they are poor in run support, but that didn't seem to be the case with Hayden.
Hayden shed the block of Decker and pushed Knowshon Moreno out of bounds on one such play in the second quarter against the Broncos. Lamarr Houston stunted inside on the toss play to the left, and the left tackle Chris Clark overwhelmed Burnett. If Hayden doesn't get off his block, Moreno has only the safety to beat.
Receivers that are bigger and stronger than Hayden can push him around because they have a size advantage, but he appears to be pretty good at disengaging and fighting through those blocks when he maintains good balance. Against Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris, Hayden may have to get more involved in run support than normal.
For Hayden, getting more involved in run support is one way he can bounce back from his terrible Week 3 performance. Hayden has proven he can get off the blocks, he just needs to be more fundamentally sound when tackling.
Despite the missed tackles, Hayden was actually not that bad in coverage. Many of Hayden's mistakes had to do with giving too much cushion in off coverage, but that's understandable when facing a receiver like Thomas and a quarterback like Manning.
Hayden was targeted five times and allowed receptions each time, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Manning threw the ball 37 times, only had five incomplete passes against the Raiders and four of them were drops, so none of Oakland's defensive backs performed. The Broncos might have fewer completions against air on an off day.
The Raiders didn't get much pressure on Manning, and that made Hayden's job nearly impossible. One sack of Manning and a handful of hurries isn't going to get the job done against the best passing offense in football.
When a quarterback can fit the ball into windows at tight as Manning and he has all day to throw, they are going to be tough to beat. When Hayden allowed a 22-yard corner catch to Thomas, he actually played it about as well as you can.
Maybe Hayden could have gotten his head around a little sooner, but even if he did Manning put the ball only where Thomas could catch it. Hayden funneled Thomas inside know he had help from Woodson and then broke hard underneath when Thomas went to the corner.
There's not much Hayden could have done differently on the play. Hayden left very little margin for error for Manning and Thomas, but they were about as perfect on the play as you can get. Manning actually had a receiver more open on the opposite side of the field running the same corner route against the Raiders' Cover 2.
When you break down all Hayden's targets, it was a 22-yard perfectly thrown corner route, a four-yard screen pass, two quick slants—one for five and one for six yards—and a 12-yard comeback that was probably his worst play of the day. If Hayden doesn't miss four tackles on those five targets, it doesn't look nearly as bad.
Hayden's eight yards after the catch allowed was actually the lowest of any of Oakland's defensive backs that were targeted three times or more. The missed tackles didn't really hurt Hayden or the Raiders that much.
As with any young player, there will be growing pains. Hayden has some work to do become the player the Raiders need him to be, but the skill is there. Hayden also won't be the last cornerback the Broncos victimize, and he should be able to bounce back in Week 4 against a good opponent.