When Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie drafted cornerback D.J. Hayden in the first round of the April draft, he said Hayden could be an impact player for a rebuilding franchise.
“We want a difference-maker,” McKenzie said in April. “That’s what he is. He can cover, point blank. He can find the football.”
McKenzie may prove to be correct, but learning to play cornerback in the NFL is a tough assignment, one of the most difficult to learn and one where every mistake is magnified.
As the Raiders (1-2) head into their game against the Washington Redskins (0-3) Sunday at O.co Coliseum, it’s obvious that if Hayden is going to be a difference-maker, the Raiders will have to be patient.
Against the Broncos Monday night in a 37-21 loss, Hayden had a rough night. Not only was he a part of a secondary that was taken apart by Broncos QB Peyton Manning (who completed 86.5 percent of his throws), but he missed six tackles, according to Pro Football Focus, which graded Hayden the second-worst cornerback in coverage in the NFL in Week 3.
“He’s still learning,” head coach Dennis Allen told ESPN.com after the Monday loss. “He still has a long way to go. I like the talent, I like the ability. I’d like to see him be more aggressive. I think as the plays begin to come his way and he begins to make a few more plays, I think you’ll see that confidence and aggressiveness come out a little more.
“You see it at times, but that’s really the challenge I have for him is to have that confidence in himself and be a little bit more aggressive as a football player.”
As the No. 3 cornerback, Hayden had played 72 snaps over his first two games against the Colts and Jaguars.
Against Indianapolis, he allowed three completions for 37 yards, all for first downs.
After his debut, Allen said that for Hayden’s first game, it was “not bad,” but added there were “a couple of plays in there you’d like to see him make.”
Now, this Sunday, Hayden may have to take some big steps forward against Washington and quarterback Robert Griffin III. Starting corner Tracy Porter suffered a concussion Monday night and may not be able to play. If so, Hayden will be in the starting lineup. Porter cleared the first phase of concussion tests and was cleared for limited practice Wednesday, but a final determination won’t be made until Friday or Saturday.
Hayden says he knows he needs to make significant improvements, but understands what he needs to do.
“I just have to finish and be more aggressive on the ball,” Hayden said recently. “When the ball’s thrown and they’re about to catch it, be more aggressive on the breaks. If I do that, I should be all right.”