It’s now just days away from the opening of the Oakland Raiders training camp in Napa. Players are scheduled to arrive July 23, with the first practice on July 25.
In his training camp preview this week, Paul Gutierrez – who covers the Raiders for ESPN.com – outlined a few of the biggest story lines in camp. How Matt Schaub looks in trying to resurrect his career as an effective NFL quarterback is of course the biggest, and the development of top draft pick Khalil Mack is another.
But one of the keys to the Raiders’ defensive success this coming season may be the No. 1 draft pick from 2013, cornerback D.J. Hayden.
As Gutierrez notes, the Raiders continue to express faith in Hayden and believe he can win the starting job at right cornerback and rebound from an up-and-down rookie year that was cut short by injury.
But after suffering a sprained ankle this spring, Hayden missed valuable time during organized team actitivies (OTAs) and the recent full-squad minicamp.
“His injury has to have Oakland worried,” wrote Gutierrez. “Even if he is a full go at the start of camp, he missed valuable reps in the offseason. Sure, Hayden got mental reps, but they are not nearly as important or effective, especially for a player who many in the organization see as a bonus draft pick since he appeared in only eight games (two starts) last season.”
It remains to be seen if the ankle injury is just a speed bump for Hayden, or a big setback.
Before the injury, Hayden appeared much stronger – through offseason weight work – and was excited and eager to start his second season.
And in March, head coach Dennis Allen also was very optimistic.
“I think D.J. Hayden is going to be outstanding,” he said.
But even then, Allen added the “if” that keeps popping up in any evaluation of the young cornerback: “If he can stay healthy, I think he is going to be outstanding.”
So far, that’s been the problem. Oakland drafted him after Hayden’s freakish and near-fatal chest injury during his final season at the University of Houston, then watched him go down at midseason of his rookie year with a groin injury. Then came the ankle injury.
With Hayden, the Raiders have the makings of a much better cornerback corps in 2013, along with ex-49er veterans Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers. If Hayden proves fragile, one of those cornerback positions may prove to again be a weak link.
Right now, Hayden is on track to be on the field when training camp begins. If he can be fully healthy for all of camp and through the exhibition season, Oakland may finally get to see what the young defensive back can do when healthy, and what general manager Reggie McKenzie saw when he made him Oakland’s top pick a year ago.
Said Allen, after Hayden missed minicamp: “He needs the work.”