Raiders head coach Dennis Allen recently noted that cornerback D.J. Hayden was “light years” ahead of where he was a year ago.
In a matter of weeks, however, Hayden has hit a wall. And as usual with the young, injury-prone corner, the wall won.
Allen on Thursday told the media gathered at Raiders training camp that Hayden will be placed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list after he suffered a stress fracture in his right foot at organized team activities this spring.
At first, team doctors thought the injury was just a sprain. When a fracture was discovered, surgery was required to correct it. Now Hayden is expected to be out 4-8 weeks, meaning he might miss all of training camp.
It’s certainly not the scenario the Raiders were hoping for going into 2014. They were counting on Hayden, last year’s No. 1 pick, to step in, earn a starting spot at cornerback and live up to the expectations placed on him by general manager Reggie McKenzie when he was selected out of the University of Houston.
But Hayden has now lost time during his final year at Houston (because of a freak chest injury), half his rookie season (for a sports hernia) and now the stress fracture in his foot.
“It’s disappointing for him and for me, because he’s a guy we were counting on being able to step up and help us this year, and he’s a young player and he needs the reps,” Allen told the media.
So what’s Plan B? With Hayden now out of the picture – at least for a while – the Raiders will have to find someone in camp to take his place. Veteran corners Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers will start, with Rogers expected to take over slot responsibilities in nickel coverage. But that leaves the team looking for someone to take over outside cover responsibilities in nickel coverage.
Best bets are rookie T.J. Carrie and veteran Chimdi Chekwa. Rookie corner Keith McGill -- a fourth-round pick from Utah -- might have been a good option, too, but he’s also expected to be placed on the PUP list because of an ankle problem. McGill is a tall (6-foot-3) physical corner who made a good impression in organized team activities and other workouts this spring.
But that leaves the door open for Carrie, a seventh-round pick from Ohio. The Raiders took Carrie mostly for his prowess as a return specialist. But Carrie has caught the eyes of Raiders coaches as a pass defender – a pleasant surprise.
“I’ve been very impressed with him,” Allen told reporters during OTAs. “His ability to understand what we’re trying to do within the scheme of the defense. What you look for in guys like that is you look for a guy who is going to make a play that kind of catches your attention. Really every day there’s been something that he’s done that you say, ‘Damn, that was a pretty good play.’ I like where he’s at and the development process here.”
Chekwa, entering his fourth season, was a fourth-round pick by Oakland out of Ohio State in 2011. He played just seven games his first two seasons before appearing in 15 in 2013, making 23 tackles, forcing two fumbles and recovering one.
According to Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle, Allen mentioned Chekwa as a candidate to earn significant playing time with Hayden out.
Meanwhile, the Raiders will wait – again – for Hayden to get back, regain his full fitness and finally show over an extended period of time whether he’s a player Oakland can count on for the present and future.
“The kid wants to be out there,” said Allen. “He wants to play. It’s just been unfortunate that he’s had some injuries that have kept him from being able to do that.”