Hayden’s ‘really good spring’ highlights corner depth

A season removed from ranking 26th in passing yards allowed per game, Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio is confident the cornerback trio of Sean Smith, David Amerson and D.J. Hayden can make the Silver and Black’s back-end special.

Smith and Amerson are locks to start on the outside, while the starting job for the slot cornerback position is still up in the air. Hayden, a former first-round pick in 2013, has a good chance of winning the slot cornerback role according to head coach Jack Del Rio.

Del Rio had high praise for Hayden at minicamp on Thursday:

“DJ Hayden had a really good spring, he really did. He got a little tweak yesterday, but nothing major. I’m excited about his development. He has terrific foot quickness and he is intelligent, so those things are definitely factors that help in the slot.”

Hayden has struggled significantly since he’s entered the NFL. The University of Houston product was injury-plagued his first couple of seasons, and last year he was consistently torched by opposing quarterbacks.

Hayden’s inability to turn his head and locate the football led to numerous pass interference penalties and big plays. Hayden only has 20 passes defended in three seasons, which is less than what teammate David Amerson posted this past season alone.

Despite Hayden’s struggles, Del Rio still has faith in the young cornerback:

“As a player, it is never too late (to redefine yourself). You can turn the corner, and peel labels off that people have for you, and create your own. I feel like (Hayden) is on his way to doing that this year.”

Hayden won’t be pressured into a starting role this year, since Amerson and Smith have the starting cornerback roles locked down.

The Raiders signed Smith to a four-year, $40 million deal earlier in the offseason. Smith spent the past three seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, where he had five interceptions and 43 passes defended. Prior to the Chiefs, Smith spent four seasons withe the Miami Dolphins.

Smith uses his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame to be a very physical corner. He uses his size to his advantage by disrupting receivers at the line and smothering them downfield. Smith’s experience and leadership have already been rubbing off on Amerson:

“(Smith’s) a very smart dude, and he has no problem passing the knowledge on. I’ve learned a lot just being around him during these OTAs. I’m excited to see how much more I can learn from him going through the season. I’m looking forward to locking people down.”

The Raiders picked up Amerson after Week 2 of last season, a home run move by general manager Reggie McKenzie. After struggling in Washington for a couple of years, the former second-round pick emerged as a force for the Raiders.

Amerson had 29 passes defended last year, which was second most in the league, to go along with four interceptions. He won Pro Football Focus’s most improved player award last season for his tremendous play.

Amerson is also a long corner like Smith, at 6-foot-1. He excelled in man-to-man coverage last season, but still wants to improve on his physicality:

“I can defiantly be a much more physical guy at the line of scrimmage. I think I’m pretty decent, but I know I can get better. At defensive back, it’s so detailed. It’s all the little things, as far as eyes and understanding formations and all kinds of things. It is still a long way to go.”

Amerson said he’s continuing to improve as the offseason progresses, and he embraces the challenge of attaining the consistency modeled by Sean Smith:

“As a corner, you can never be scared of the ball coming your way. You’re right there on an island by yourself and you have to stand up when the time comes. (Smith’s) an established corner in this league, and I’m still trying to prove myself, so I’m prepared.”