One 2013 NFL Draft prospect who’s been gaining a lot of momentum since his pro day is Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden, who dropped off the map after a suffering a life-threatening injury in early November. Rushed to the hospital after a collision in practice, doctors discovered a tear to his inferior vena cava, a major vein which carries blood from the lower body back to the heart. Although the injury is typically seen in crash victims and almost always fatal, timely surgery was able to save his life, and a successful recovery has him back in shape and performing for scouts.
Unfortunately a hamstring tweak prevented him from performing all the drills, but he did complete a 40-yard dash timed between 4.33 and 4.42, so long speed is not a concern. His relevant physical measurements from the combine were:
Weight: 191 pounds
Arm Length: 31 1/8 inches
So he may not have great size and length, but those numbers don’t preclude him from playing on the outside. We’ll see how they translate to the field with some 2012 tape.Hayden vs. UCLA
0:00 - Playing off the receiver, he reacts quickly to the hand off on a running play and makes a move to contain the running back as a safety makes the tackle.
0:15 - Playing off, he shows a smooth backpedal and quick reaction to his man’s comeback route, making the tackle as the ball is caught.
0:35 - Gets blocked out of a running play to his side by the receiver.
0:45 - Makes an initial move toward the sideline to defend a sweep, then sees the running back cut toward the middle of the field, eludes a block and makes the tackle.
0:56 - Performs a brief jam against a slant, then appears to bail back into a zone before going after the receiving back in the flat.
1:06 - Lined up tight on his man but with no jam, he gets turned around nicely and is in good position to defend a back-shoulder throw.
1:25 - Reacts too slowly to a slant in off coverage while watching play-action in the backfield. This would’ve been a wide open touchdown had the quarterback not been sacked by an unblocked blitz from the slot corner.
1:41 - Playing close but with no press, he quickly turns, stays on his man down the sideline and does a really nice job turning his head to find the ball, but drops a potential interception.
1:57 - Playing off, he reacts very quickly to a WR screen, but can’t beat the block to make a play on it.
2:09 - Playing well off, he attacks an inside handoff by attempting to get inside his blocker, but is forced to reverse directions when the running back bounces outside. Hayden pursues him up the sideline but a safety makes the tackle before he can.
2:20 - With no wide receiver or tight end to his side, Hayden draws a running back in coverage. He sees the wheel route all the way, turning and running down the sideline well ahead of him, then sees the back turn his head, does the same, breaks on the ball and intercepts it.
2:45 - Playing zone, Hayden does a nice job drifting right with the quarterback, chasing down the receiver and forcing a fumble.
3:13 - Playing off against wide receiver screen, he can’t do much against the block.
3:25 - Again playing off against a wide receiver screen, although this time he has no blocker to deal with. He accelerates quickly to make the tackle, but the pass is dropped.
3:33 - Makes a nice break on a comeback route in off coverage; the ball arrives way late, giving him a shot at the interception, but he drops it.
4:09 - Facing another comeback while playing off, the quarterback looks at Hayden’s receiver but doesn’t throw the pass against good coverage.
4:21 - On a run to his side of the field, he gets past his blocker when the receiver trips. An unremarkable play, but he did keep his eyes focused on the running back once the ball was handed off.
4:52 - Lined up to press, he does a mediocre job beating the receiver block on a running play.
5:01 - Lined up to press, he backpedals a few steps before delivering a jab that slows the receiver a little, then keeps backpedaling with the receiver as the ball goes elsewhere.
5:11- Playing off against a fade, he turns nicely out of his backpedal for good coverage through the route.
5:22 - Playing off against a double move, he turns his hips outside and the receiver cuts across him, but he recovers nicely, finds the ball in the airs and deflects it, but draws an interference penalty for grabbing the receiver’s shoulder pad with the other hand.
5:57 - After getting blocked way down the field on a swing pass to the running back, Hayden does a nice job keeping his eyes on the running back’s location, but can’t do anything but give ground as the receiver keeps pushing him out of the play.
6:16 - Playing off against a comeback, it's not clear whether the receiver may have pushed off to get separation or Hayden couldn't reverse momentum quickly enough, but the quarterback looks elsewhere.
6:28 - Bails on covering a drag route when he sees that the quarterback looking at the running back in the flat. Nice recognition, but an incredibly dangerous play that left his man wide open before the pass was actually thrown.
6:40 - Unblocked on a running play, but gets trucked by the back for an extra three yards.
6:51 - The running back breaks one up the middle and Hayden shows good speed chasing him down.
7:05 - Positioning himself in front of a pulling guard as UCLA runs power left, Hayden can’t recover fast enough to catch the running back when he cuts it back towards the middle.Reaction
Hayden spent the overwhelming majority of this game in various levels of off-man coverage, which he is for the most part very good at. He backpedals incredibly smoothly, drives well on underneath throws, and turns his hips quickly to cover vertical routes. He also does a good job of keeping his eyes on the quarterback when possible, reading the receiver’s eyes, and finding the ball in the air. Keeping his eyes in the backfield can occasionally work against him though - like biting on a good play-action fake or peeling off his receiver too soon when the quarterback looks elsewhere.
Press is not a real strength. When required to play close to the line of scrimmage Hayden has the speed and hips to turn and run step for step with his man, but putting a jam on him is another story. While he doesn’t possess great natural size and length to help get his hands on the target, his ability to impede routes is still unimpressive. This ought to be a good area for technical improvement in the NFL, although in Perry Fewell’s primarily off/zone scheme it shouldn’t be a huge deal regardless.
Houston may have afforded Hayden limited opportunities to play zone, but he showed the recognition skills and athleticism to excel at it. A year spent learning the Giants’ zone concepts behind presumptive starters Prince Amukamara and Corey Webster should have him ready from significant playing time in 2014, since awareness of the players in his vicinity is already a strength.
Run defense is almost certainly the weakest area of Hayden’s game. He does a nice job locating the running back, but he cannot consistently beat or even stand up to receiver blocks. If he can learn to defeat blocks with quickness then there is a chance he could get better in the NFL, but going around them is an inherently risky tactic because it can take him out of the play entirely.Verdict
Hayden's athleticism, cover skills and awareness put him in in play for a high selection, but his game has its drawbacks. Besides being a liability in run defense, which is a somewhat forgivable flaw in a cornerback, he isn’t very physical in coverage. I can see him getting out-muscled badly by larger NFL receivers given his apparent inability to press or stand up to blocks. His best fit may be in the slot, where I'm not sure he compares favorably to Jayron Hosley. The current Giant may not excel in press at 178 pounds, but he brings impressive physicality to coverage and run defense that I haven’t seen from Hayden. Despite all this he could still represent good value in the second round, because his athletic tools and coverage instincts rank among the best of all this year's cornerbacks.