With Darius Slay sitting out of the team’s first preseason game, newcomer DJ Hayden made a surprise start against the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday. Hayden made a few good plays in that game, but he’s still something of an unknown commodity to Detroit fans. You probably know him to be a former first round pick that flamed out in Oakland due to injuries and unmet expectations. There’s also a chance you know the story of how he overcame an episode of life-threatening heart trauma to realize his NFL dream. But unless you’ve been moonlighting as a Raiders fan, you probably don’t know much about him as a player.
That’s where I come in.
I watched six of Hayden’s 2016 games and have compiled my findings in this friendly, easy-to-read report. If you’d like, you can also follow along with the Twitter GIF thread on him that I made over the weekend.
Name: Hayden, DJ
Number: #31 (was #25 in Oakland)
Experience: 4 years
Position: CB, SCB
DOB: 6/27/1990 (27 yo)
Team: Detroit Lions
Weight: 191 lbs.
40-yard dash: 4.40s
10-yard split: 1.57s
Bench press: N/A
Games played: 45
Games started: 25
Games won (win percentage): 22 (48.8%)
Team captain: no
Defensive scheme: Has spent two years in Defensive Coordinator Ken Norton Jr.’s multiple-front defensive scheme which uses a lot of Cover one and man concepts. Played primarily in the slot against 3+ WR personnel groupings, but was occasionally used on the outside due to injuries.
2016 – Hamstring (Wk 13, Injured Reserve)
2015 – Ankle, (Wks 11, 17, missed no games)
2014 – Groin (Wk 11, missed no games); Foot (Wks 1-6, missed six games)
2013 – Groin (Wks 10-12, missed three games before being placed on IR)
Career – 3 INTs, 26 PBUs, 180 tackles in 45 games.
2016 – 0 INTs, 6 PBUs, 37 tackles in 11 games.
Best of: Zone coverage, play speed, run support, motor
Worst of: Ball skills, LOS skills, pursuit angles, grabbing
Mental processing: 5/7
Athletic ability: 4/7
Play speed: 5/7
Competitive toughness: 5/7
Play strength: 4/7
Man coverage: 3/7
LOS skills: 2/7
Ball skills: 2/7
Run support: 6/7
Open-field tackling: 5/7
2016: 9/11 at NO, 9/18 vs. ATL, 10/16 vs. KC, 10/23 at JAX, 10/30 at TB 11/27 vs. CAR
Hayden is a solid athlete, particularly in a straight line. He accelerates well and has good foot speed, which allows him to cover ground quickly. He also sees the game well, has a good feel for targets entering and exiting his zone, and demonstrates plus route recognition. These two factors add up to good click and close ability, which will serve him well in Teryl Austin’s defensive scheme (more on that later).
Perhaps what stands out most on his tape is his competitive fire. Hayden has a high motor and chased several plays down from behind for the Raiders in 2016. He’s also a tough, physical player that excels in run support. He honors his contain responsibilities well and is a square-up, wrap-up tackler, a trait not many cornerbacks possess. He uses utilizes solid strength and good arm extension and hand use to discard blockers and demonstrates the ability to shed and tackle. In space, he was a reliable tackler that proved he could get down a variety of ball carriers, from guys like Brandin Cooks to Jonathan Stewart.
In man coverage, Hayden is very active with his hands and uses them disrupt route progression. He has the recovery speed to close separation on drags and crossing routes, as well as go routes. He flashes the ability to cover good receivers whenever he’s patient and his footwork is technically sound.
However, Hayden has some issues in coverage, most of which stem from his footwork. At the line of scrimmage, he tends to double-clutch his inside foot – something DB coaches say is the equivalent of gifting a receiver two steps. He also panics in off coverage whenever fast receivers release vertically and defaults to a shuffle which prevents him from flipping his hips and running with them. Hayden is also very handsy and was flagged for pass interference or holding twelve times in eleven games in 2016. He needs to trust his recovery speed more in that regard.
His press skills leave a lot to be desired, as he impatiently lunges at targets and compromises his leverage. He has short limbs, which doesn’t improve matters, and can be boxed out of the catchpoint by bigger receivers. Ball skills are another area of concern for him. When in phase with a receiver, he fails to turn his head and track the ball in a timely manner, which limits his ability to play the ball. His hands are also questionable. Lastly, his initial pursuit angles need fine-tuning and often require last-second correction.
At the end of the day, Hayden is a solid third cornerback that you can win with. He mostly played in the slot at Oakland, but kicked outside when injuries called for it. He’ll likely find his role in Detroit on the outside, where he can eliminate more route possibilities and guess less. The system in Detroit will serve him better than the one in Oakland did. He was at his best playing off coverage and played more confidently with two high safeties. If he can stay healthy and acclimate to the Lions’ system, he could earn himself a second contract with the team.