Cornerback D.J. Hayden could be on the verge of making general manager Reggie McKenzie look a lot smarter.
McKenzie has been getting praise for the work he did on his 2014 draft class, picking up linebacker Khalil Mack, getting quarterback Derek Carr in the second round and guard Gabe Jackson in the third, plus grabbing some lower-round picks with apparent potential.
But McKenzie’s 2013 draft crop wasn’t impressive.
Hayden, however, can change that.
Hayden, McKenzie’s first-round pick last year, had a tough rookie season. He played only eight games because of a groin injury, and was wildly inconsistent on the field. He saved a victory against the Chargers with a late-game interception, but also gave up several big plays.
Now Hayden could be poised for a big second season.
In the Raiders’ second phase of offseason work, Hayden looks like a much different player, reported Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle. Tafur noted that Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver said in a recent radio interview that Hayden “has put on weight and strength” – a knock against him as a rookie – and has learned from his rough rookie season.
“D.J. saw just about everything, both in life and in football, happen to him in his rookie season,” Tarver said. “From his surgeries to his injuries to what he’s overcome personally, physically, everything.”
Both McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen have said they expect Hayden to play a big role on the re-made Raiders defense in 2014, along with veteran free-agent cornerbacks (and former 49ers) Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers.
Tarver said Hayden’s technique is better, he’s stronger and “he looks explosive.” With more knowledge, Tarver said, Hayden is able to recognize more routes, make quicker decisions and be much more aggressive.
It’s all part of what McKenzie originally saw in Hayden when the GM drafted him out of Houston with the 12th overall pick.
“The guy can cover,” said McKenzie in 2013 to the Bay Area media after drafting Hayden. “Point blank, he can cover. He can find the football, so he does what we’re looking for in a cornerback. He’s a good cover corner who can get his hands on the football.”
The Raiders are hoping the 2014 draft class will make a big impact on the team’s play this upcoming season. But Oakland also needs its 2013 draft class – including top two picks Hayden and offensive tackle Menelik Watson – to earn major contributing roles.
If they do, the low grades McKenzie received for 2013 could be erased and raised significantly. And the Raiders could be much better.