Coming into 2014, the Oakland Raiders penciled second-year cornerback D.J. Hayden in as a starter opposite Tarell Brown. Hayden was looking to put an injury-plagued rookie season behind him and become the player general manager Reggie McKenzie thought he was getting with the 12th overall selection of the 2013 NFL draft.
When the Raiders placed Hayden on the reserve PUP list, they hoped he could rehab a broken foot and be healthy enough to play Week 1. Despite Hayden moving around well Monday, the Raiders opted to put him on the reserve PUP list to start the regular season. Hayden will miss at least the first six weeks of the season.
Just a few weeks ago, losing Hayden for five games would have been a devastating blow to a thin secondary, but the Raiders are suddenly flush with cornerback depth. The team now has the luxury of ensuring Hayden is both 100 percent healthy and in football shape before activating him.
No One to Blame
It’s disappointing that Hayden has missed so much time, but it’s not fair to say it was a bad draft pick by McKenzie at this point. Aside from surgery prior to training camp last year to remove scar tissue, the Raiders couldn’t have predicted the injuries that have forced Hayden to miss games.
Many people have suggested that Hayden was an injury risk due to the freak injury he suffered in college and that the Raiders should have drafted defensive tackle Star Lotulelei instead. This ignores the fact that Lotulelei had a heart condition that prevented him from working out at the combine.
Although Lotulelei’s condition cleared up, that didn’t remove all the injury questions. As featured columnist Dave Siebert M.D. pointed out, Lotulelei’s heart was ejecting below-normal levels of blood when he was tested, and there’s no way to know when or if that might happen again.
… there is no way to know if and when the drop in EF will happen again, and questions remain: Is Lotulelei predisposed to further temporary decreases? If the first episode indeed produced no symptoms, how will teams know if Lotulelei is suffering from another? Does it even matter?
It’s a good example of the problem with trying to project injuries. Without the benefit of hindsight, Lotulelei was as much or more of an unknown from an injury perspective as Hayden.
Lotulelei’s condition cleared up, and he’s stayed healthy since. Hayden healed from his college injury and has two unrelated injuries that have caused him to miss games.
Sometimes, it’s just bad luck and no one is to blame.
The reality at the time was that the Raiders needed a contributor more than they needed a cornerback, but they also really needed a cornerback. On a better team with better cornerbacks, Hayden’s injuries wouldn’t be such an indictment of the front office.
A Young Trio
There are multiple ways to change the perception of Hayden’s injury. One is for Hayden to get healthy, and the other is to have players playing well enough to make everyone forget Hayden even exists—at least for six weeks.
Three cornerbacks are competing for the nickel role made available by Hayden’s injury—TJ Carrie, Neiko Thorpe and Chimdi Chekwa. If you were looking for a positive out of Oakland this preseason, the development of the young cornerbacks has been one of them.
Asked if he was concerned about his No. 3 cornerback spot with Hayden going to the PUP list, defensive coordinator Jason Tarver seemed more excited than worried via Raiders.com.
I think we’ve had good competition at the corner position through camp and through the preseason. There’ve been some players that step up like TJ Carrie and Neiko [Thorpe], and that battle will still be going on this week, two days from now. I’m excited to see these guys play, because they both did some good things last week and they’ve both done good things throughout camp. What’s happening is some other players are getting the chance to prove they deserve to be on this roster.
Carrie, Thorpe and Chekwa each took very different paths to this point, but their play this preseason was a big reason the Raiders were able to keep Hayden on ice. Hayden being hurt in the first place may have also accelerated their maturation process.
The Raiders drafted Carrie in the seventh round of last April’s draft and viewed him mostly as a return specialist, but he’s steadily climbed the depth chart. Carrie has a chance to win the nickel role Week 1 with a good performance Thursday against the Seattle Seahawks.
Last Friday against the Green Bay Packers, the Raiders asked Carrie to cover star wide receiver Jordy Nelson, and he did well. On four targets, Carrie only allowed two receptions for 19 yards, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Unfortunately, Carrie did allow a 12-yard touchdown, but it’s better to learn from that kind of mistake during preseason than the regular season.
Thorpe was also impressive last Friday against Green Bay, as he didn’t allow a reception on four targets. Pro Football Focus gave Thorpe a positive grade of 2.5 for the game and credited him with four tackles and two stops.
In 2012, Thorpe played nine games with the Kansas City Chiefs, but he was cut last August and played last year in the CFL. Tarver said Tuesday that Thorpe’s CFL experience has only helped because “the only way to get better at playing football is playing football.”
The veteran pushing for a role is Chekwa, who had a solid performance in the first preseason game before hurting his knee, but the Raiders were considering him for the nickel role prior to that. If he’s healthy enough to play in Week 1, he could get the nod ahead of Thorpe or Carrie simply because he’s going into his third year in the same defensive scheme.
Chekwa told me during training camp that veterans like Carlos Rogers and Brown are coming to him when they have questions about Tarver's defensive scheme. Chekwa's knowledge of the defense, even after missing the last three preseason games, may give him an edge.
“We’re pretty excited about who we have in here,” Tarver said Tuesday. “We have a good mix of veterans and, like we talked about with Neiko, some hungry young players that want to do it right. (Chimdi Chekwa) was doing well and he’ll be back doing well.”
Isolated performances happen during the preseason, but Carrie, Thorpe and Chekwa have each carried over their practice performances into games. There will be growing pains, but for the first time since they drafted him, the Raiders don’t need to rush D.J. Hayden.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.