ALAMEDA — DJ Hayden came into the NFL with a more unique backstory than most first-round draft picks.
Not long after the Raiders picked him 12th overall, Hayden missed organized team activities and parts of training camp while he recovered from surgery related to a life-threatening heart injury while at college at the University of Houston.
Hayden is looking to make his mark on the league less than 20 months removed from open heart surgery. The life-saving surgery was performed to repair his inferior vena cava – the main blood vessel too the heart — severed during a routine college practice.
He missed a large portion of the season, and will enter 2014 with only a little more experience than his rookie teammates.
This season, Hayden isn’t taking any time off. Healthy and ready to go, Hayden estimates he’s added up to 10 pounds of muscle and attributes it to diet and time in the weight room.
Something of a quasi-rookie, Hayden is showing the coaches and general manager Reggie McKenzie that they made the right move when Oakland drafted him. Head coach Dennis Allen said:
“When you look at how the league has gone with these big, physical receivers, it’s hard to play the position without having that function of strength, both in your upper body and lower body. He’s got the athletic skill to play the position, but that was one of the things that we talked about in the offseason that he needed to do to get stronger.”
“He’s done a great job this offseason of putting his body in a position to have success. He’s got to continue to do that throughout the rest of the offseason and all the way up through training camp.”
Last season, Hayden played in eight games, starting two, before being diagnosed with a sports hernia and placed on injured reserve. He had one interception, which sealed the Raiders’ win over the division rival Chargers.
Three games later, he was picked apart by Nick Foles and the Eagles, instantly earning the “bust” label by fans. Surely the sample was adequate. Right?
This season, Hayden want’s to make those who have doubted him look silly. Hayden said:
“At first going through OTAs it might have been (in my mind that I’m not healthy), but now, I’m great. I’m feeling a whole lot better. I’ve been lifting, working out, and I actually got a full offseason in so I’m ready; I’m ready for the season to start. … Was (the San Diego game) the closest that they’ve seen? Yeah, what they’ve seen.”
The Raiders picked Hayden because of his ability and natural tendency to break on the ball. But he wasn’t able to showcase it, as few rookies are.
Hayden’s confidence took a hit, especially after taking a proverbial beating from fans following getting constantly burned by the Eagles.
But that’s another area that Hayden thinks he’s improved in. Perhaps more importantly, Hayden believes the mental aspect of the game to be a difference-maker:
“If you know what to do, your natural reactions you’re just going to do it. You’re already athletic enough to do it, you just have to do it.”
The soft-spoken and mild-mannered corner from eastern Texas has a lot to learn still, and he knows it. But one thing he has now, that he didn’t last summer, is a plethora of veterans to learn it all from.
Free agent acquisitions Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown have plenty of experience already. Hayden hasn’t been a stranger to Charles Woodson, previously his favorite player on the team. But Hayden says he might have a new favorite who he can learn about the game from:
“When I heard we got Justin Tuck, I was like, ‘he’s a big dog.’ I’ve talked to Tuck. We’ve talked about not even football stuff, just basically life stuff, how he likes to go fishing. We were talking about planning a fishing trip or whatever. Justin Tuck was one of the people I was excited to meet.”
Just like he performed at his pro day last year, running a sub-4.4 second 40-yard-dash, Hayden wants to expand the bounds of reason. He’s determined. And it’s all possible because he’s healthy.
And Hayden says he’s not the only one:
“I feel like not only me, not only do I have something to prove, but I feel like we all have something to prove. Because with our season last year, we have to do way better now. We’re way better than that and I just can’t wait to get this season going.”
Nobody will really know how effective Hayden will be until the season starts in September. But there’s one certainty in it all: if Hayden doesn’t play like the shutdown corner he aspires to be, it won’t be for a lack of effort.