In college, the Maryland wide receiver was considered to be a speed demon who could break off a huge touchdown on every play.
The Oakland Raiders shocked the world when they selected him with the seventh overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, taking him over Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin. The pick was highly criticized, and rightfully so.
In Heyward-Bey's rookie season, he only caught nine passes for 124 yards and one touchdown. A very disappointing season for a top 10 pick.
He was determined to improve his play and worked hard in the offseason. His numbers improved as he caught 26 passes for 366 yards. Not great numbers, but it's a start. You should also keep in mind that the Raiders receivers don't normally get great receiving numbers.
Despite the improvement, Heyward-Bey has a lot to work on. He needs to be a better receiver past 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Most of the catches I saw were on comeback routes where defensive backs gave him a lot of cushion. He needs to learn how to get separation on deep routes and how to find the open spot over the middle.
Until he can learn how to do that, the coaching staff needs to play to his strengths. What are his strengths? Speed.
A player with 4.2 speed can be used in a lot of different ways. Many would think to just have him run 40 yards down the field and outrun the defenders. That's hard to do when the player struggles to get separation when running routes.
There are so many ways the Raiders can get Heyward-Bey involved. For one, they need to get more creative and stretch the defense by giving him more running plays. They've done so in the past, but not enough. In his two-year career, he's only run the ball six times, but for 67 yards. It's clear that a player who averages 14 yards per catch and 11 yards per run can produce huge plays when he has the ball in his hands.
But how can the Raiders get the ball into his hands if he can't catch and can't get separation? Screens.
On a receiver screen, the receiver catches a short passes, waits for his blockers and uses his speed to run. Heyward-Bey is a receiver that was meant to run. The Raiders try too hard to go for the home run with the streak when they should go for the short, high-percentage passes that give their incredibly fast receivers a chance to show their speed by running after the catch.
In the 2009-2010 season, the Raiders only ran one receiver screen. The Patriots, Broncos, Bears and Colts ran the highest amount of screens in that season. Among Welker, Marshall, Hester, Wayne, Collie and Garcon, no receiver caught less than 600 yards that season.
Running receiver screens will open up the passing offense even more. Opposing cornerbacks will think it's going to be a streak play, soften up in coverage only to watch Heyward-Bey do his thing after catching a short screen. The next play, the cornerback will play a little tighter coverage, afraid of being exploited again, only to see Heyward-Bey run right past him on a streak play.
That sounds like a terrific plan to me. As a huge Heyward-Bey supporter, I just want to see the guy do well. Please, Raiders coaching staff, get Heyward-Bey more involved and play to his strengths!