Oakland Raiders: Don't Panic on D.J. Hayden

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Oakland Raiders: Don't Panic on D.J. Hayden
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The Oakland Raiders traded down from No. 3 to No. 12 overall to select cornerback D.J. Hayden in the 2013 NFL draft, but to this point they haven’t gotten much out of him.

Hayden missed eight games in 2013 with a sports hernia and missed far more practice time due to various other injuries.

Now, Hayden will miss more time with a stress fracture in his foot, according to Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle. He had surgery four weeks ago, and the timetable given for his return was four to eight weeks.

It’s the fourth injury in just over a year that has caused Hayden to miss time and his third surgery, but it’s still too early to hit the panic button. The number of injuries Hayden has sustained is nothing more than alarming at this point.

Even if the Raiders had the depth or there were quality veterans available to take Hayden’s place, there’s no reason to write off Hayden as a zero. The Raiders can still treat Hayden as an asset, just one they will have to manage and hold for a while before reaping the rewards.

 

Volume vs. Severity

One thing that needs to be noted about Hayden’s injury is that the timetable for his return was four to eight weeks from four weeks ago. That means Hayden could be close to returning…or miss all of training camp.

The sheer number of injuries Hayden has sustained over such a short period can lead people to believe falsely that it will take him toward the longer end of the timetable to get back on the field. The truth is, we don’t know.

Hayden hasn’t proved to be a slow healer, so there’s really no reason to assume eight weeks. Hayden might be able to ease back into things soon.

“We’ll see what happens the next couple of days and see how he responds (to tests) and what the doctors say,” Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie said, per another piece from Tafur. “It’s still early. Our medical staff can gauge how he is doing and we’ll know the exact timeline. But they’re hopeful. It’s not been negative at all so far, and as of now we’re thinking he will be back sooner than later.”

Hayden will have tests done Sunday, and that should give the Raiders a better idea of when he will be able to return. If those tests come back positive, it’s possible Hayden could slowly work his way back into things with the hope that he would be ready to go by Week 1 or sooner.

 

Slow Start, Strong Finish

There’s no doubt Hayden has stumbled out of the blocks. No one likes it, but it’s the hand that Hayden and the Raiders have been dealt. No one could have predicted so many injuries—even the scar tissue last year came as some surprise.

“Yeah, it’s another big setback,” McKenzie continued. “You don’t want young guys to miss any time, long or short. But he’s still got a long future ahead of him and he is going to help us this season."

Ed Andrieski/Associated Press
Demaryius Thomas struggled with injuries and is now one of the best wide receivers in football.

If it takes three years to evaluate a draft selection that actually plays, it should take a little longer to evaluate Hayden. So far, we’re just over a year into the process.

If Hayden returns from this broken foot and doesn’t miss any more time over the next two seasons, his slow start will be just a footnote on his career.

Hayden is not the first player to get off on the wrong foot. Plenty of great players have gotten off to slow starts.

Raiders Hall of Famer Willie Brown played in just eight games as a rookie in 1963 and had one interception like Hayden, before having nine in 1964.

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was cut by the Cleveland Browns and had zero interceptions in six games in 1959 with the Detroit Lions.

Ronde Barber played in just one game as a rookie and came into his first training camp out of shape.

Brown, LeBeau and Barber are now among the NFL leaders in interceptions. That’s not to say Hayden is going to be anywhere near their level, but it does mean that a slow start doesn’t mean much this early his career.

Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas is one of the players the Raiders drafted Hayden to cover.

In his first two seasons, Thomas played in just 21 games due to various injuries and had a combined 54 receptions, 834 yards and six touchdowns. In the two years since that time, Thomas has 186 receptions, 2,864 yards and 28 touchdowns and has played every game.

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Like Hayden, Thomas was always considered a great talent, but he couldn’t stay on the field long enough to get the practice reps to improve. Once he did, his career took off.

Quarterback Peyton Manning has something to do with the monster numbers, but that’s not to say Thomas wouldn’t have been very good with another quarterback.

 

Few Good Alternatives

The Raiders aren’t giving up on Hayden, and neither should the fans. If the Raiders had a lot of alternatives, it might be easier to brush aside Hayden as a sunk cost while he works back from his injuries, but that’s not the case.

Oakland expects Hayden to be a big part of the defense in 2014, and that hasn’t changed at this point.

Cornerback Chimdi Chekwa is going into his fourth professional season, so the Raiders already have a pretty good idea of how good he can be. The rest of Oakland’s cornerbacks are young and need just as much or more seasoning as Hayden, but they don’t have the same level of talent.

Hayden’s upside is still there, and there’s still time for him to get on track, even if it’s becoming abundantly clear that the clock is ticking. Hayden is talented enough that he will be worth the wait if he can get on track.

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