Playing Best Football of Career, Hayden Expects to Be Even Better

ALAMEDA – DJ Hayden is a forward thinker. The Raiders cornerback’s focus is locked on this current season and playing consistent, quality football.

Looking back won’t do him good right now. It would only distract from what has been a solid start to the 2016 season, where he’s operated well as the Raiders slot cornerback.

That might draw an eye roll from pessimistic factions of this fan base, but these numbers show a player performing well.

According to analytics site Pro Football Focus, Hayden has allowed less than 30 yards passing in three of this season’s first four games. Gains are short because his tackling’s been strong.

That was clear during Sunday’s victory over Baltimore, which marked his best game this year. He was targeted 10 times and allowed just five receptions for 27 yards (5.4ypc) and a 56.3 passer rating. He also had six tackles.

This strong start to the season is no surprise to Hayden, who has big plans in 2016. Something, it seems, might’ve clicked.

“I know it clicked,” Hayden said on’s Raiders Insider Podcast. “I know it’s going to be a great year for me. It’s a matter of time before I execute even better and sharpen up the little things. It’s about continuing to learn and playing good football.”

This is something head coach Jack Del Rio saw coming. He predicted improved play during the offseason program, saying Hayden had a chance to shed labels and be a productive player.

“DJ is playing well,” Del Rio said on Monday. “He’s done some good things. He was involved in several stops for us (against Baltimore). I feel like he’s had a good offseason, a good, productive camp and has been pretty steady for us. We need that to continue.”

Hayden looks to continue solid play Sunday against a San Diego Chargers team he has fared well against. He sealed victory in 2013 by intercepting Philip Rivers in the end zone. He got Rivers again in 2015 as part of another Raiders win.

That’s two of just three career interceptions for the No. 12 overall pick from the 2013 draft. He was Reggie McKenzie’s first first-round pick as Raiders general manager. That left all eyes locked on Hayden, especially after McKenzie said he would’ve taken Hayden at No. 3 overall before trading down.

That’s a ton of pressure on anyone, let alone someone recovering from a well-documented heart condition from a practice incident while at the University of Houston. He missed the offseason program, most of training camp and was still expected to contribute immediately on a bad team.

Hayden admits that provided extra weight then.

“Of course you’re going to feel pressure,” Hayden said. “Things didn’t go my way early in my career with injuries and stuff I had to deal with. That’s just adversity, and I have to look forward now, focus on this year. I can’t be thinking about what happened the last two or three years. I have to focus on this year and go out there and do my thing.”

And we're brought right back to the present, but those early days created a diamond tough exterior and helped form a player confident he’ll make consistently productive contributions.

“It definitely made me stronger,” Hayden said, “and a better person and a better football player going through that.”

For more from Hayden, including his thought’s on feeling comfortable in the slot, his unshakable confidence and his friendship with Maceo Alverez, a young boy battling heart issues, listen to the entire Raiders Insider Podcast right here.

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