I’ve saved the Oakland Raiders first-round selection for my last 2013 rookie Tale of the Tape for several reasons.
First, tape for Hayden is harder to find than the other rookies because Hayden was out much of 2012 with his well-documented heart injury.
Second, I’ve been meditating about what skills are needed for an elite cornerback in the ever-changing NFL.
In decades past, there wasn’t necessarily much of a size difference between wide receivers and the cornerbacks defending them. That size comparison is no longer true.
The average size for NFL receivers is above 6’2”, now, and it’s only getting bigger as receivers continue to grow. The average size for cornerbacks has stayed at or near 5’11” for some time.
The NFL’s current best WR (in my opinion), Calvin Johnson, is a towering 6’5” and a dominating 236 lbs. He also runs insanely fast for his or any size, turning in a blazing 4.36 forty-time at the 2007 NFL Combine. For comparison, Raiders rookie TE Mychal Rivera is 6’3”, 242 lbs and plays a position that is historically supposed to be bigger. Rivera ran a 4.68 40-yard dash.
Johnson isn’t alone in the “big, strong, fast” club, either. Former Charger and current Buc Vincent Jackson is also 6’5”, weighs in at 203 lbs and ran a 4.46 forty yard dash. The Bears Brandon Marshall is 6’4”. Larry Fitzgerald of the Cardinals is 6’3”.
While the receivers grow, there is another change that affects cornerbacks, perhaps even more than the size of their opponents. Namely, the rules continue to change and typically in the favor of the offense.
With pass interference calls becoming more and more prevalent, defenders are unable to rely upon intimidation and hard hitting for which they were known in the earlier years of the NFL. A cornerback in today’s NFL must be physical but cannot be overly physical for fear of being flagged.
So, what traits are the most important for a cornerback to possess in today’s NFL? There are no cornerbacks that possess the size and speed combination that the elite receivers are able to boast and so cornerbacks must rely on a different set of skills.
Going into this offseason, I was very high on larger cornerbacks. I’ve always thought that one of the most effective ways to defeat a passing game in today’s NFL is to interrupt the timing of the receiver and quarterback. Due to the 5-yard window allowed for contact, the only way to do that is to play press coverage and have your corners jam the receivers at the line of scrimmage. For this to be effective, you necessarily need to have larger cornerbacks – a cornerback like Nnamdi Asomugha, for example, who is 6’2”, 205 lbs.
However, as the offseason progressed and I considered more and more the nuances of the position, the more I came to the realization that in today’s NFL, different skills are needed to be an elite cover corner.
Defense, at most every position, is more energy-intensive than their offensive counterparts. This is because the offense knows where the ball is going and all of their efforts are focused on the play that is called. The defense does not know where the ball is going and has to expend extra energy to put themselves in position to make a play.
Because the wide receiver knows where the play is going and is running a pre-determined and practiced route to get there, the defensive cornerback, therefore, must have a variety of skills to keep up
First and foremost, because of the complexity of routes, they must be agile. That is, they must be able to change direction fluidly and with little wasted motion. Agility is, I think, one of the most underrated skills at the cornerback position. There was a time in the NFL when routes were mostly deep and had few variations. Most teams would run at the defense to draw them close to the line of scrimmage and then throw deep to try to get over the top.
Those days have passed and while that is still a tactic of offenses, it’s only one tactic in a large bag of tricks. Many offenses use a timed short passing attack in lieu of running or use the pass to set up the run.
Routes are no longer simple 9 routes to go deep. Most offensive plays are carefully considered to confuse defenders and allow quarterbacks to read the reaction so that he can find the holes in the defense.
Agility, then, is a must for a cornerback who must quickly react to a receiver who abruptly changes direction. Cornerbacks initially start out in a backpedal on almost every play. From that position, they must be ready to run laterally on a crossing route or turn their hips and run upfield to cover a deeper route. Sometimes they have to do both, if it’s a complicated route.
Agility allows the cornerback to shift their body’s direction and momentum without losing balance or speed. The more I watch film, the more convinced I become that agility is the most important skill-set for a cornerback.
If a cornerback lacks elite speed, a defensive coordinator can scheme around that by keeping a safety over top or calling more zone plays. But, if a cornerback lacks agility, they will be easy to shake on every type of route: short, intermediate or deep.
In addition to agility, a good cornerback must have at least average long-distance speed to be able to keep up with the deep speed of today’s NFL wide receivers. In fact, none of the cornerbacks who were in the top-ten for the forty at the 2013 Combine were over 6’0”, which means that it takes a special DB to be over 6’0” and still be able to run with speedy receivers deep.
A good corner must not only have good deep speed but also good burst in the short term. Because the cornerback needs to be able to cover ground quickly if his receiver makes a sudden cut or runs a comeback route, you’re looking for a good burst in movement from a cornerback.
So, in order for a man-cornerback to be able to stay with the top wide receivers we know that the corner must be agile, fluid, have good burst and have good to great top end speed. These are the attributes that will best serve a cornerback.
It’s a bonus if the cornerback is physical against the receivers but it’s not as essential in today’s NFL as the other traits mentioned due to the rise of pass interference.
It’s important to note that I’m talking mostly man-coverage corners, here. Corners that play in a zone scheme or in a cover-2 base defense can be bigger players because they are not asked to cover as much ground. They are responsible for the receivers from the line of scrimmage for maybe ten or twenty yards down the field before the pass the receiver off to a safety over the top.
Man corners, however, must be able to stay with the receiver for the entire life of the play. Cornerbacks who have that speed, stamina, fluidity and burst don’t tend to be 6’2”, they tend to be 6’0” or under.
With that in mind, we now turn to the Raiders selection of DJ Hayden. He’s listed at both 5’11” and 190 pounds which puts him right into the same range as two of the most recent cornerbacks to be commonly thought of as elite: Champ Bailey (6’0”, 192 lbs) and Darrelle Revis (5’11”, 198). Bailey and Revis are good models for what the Raiders hope DJ Hayden can become – what I call a pocket-cornerback.
The theory is that it is practically impossible for a tall cornerback to stay with a player like Calvin Johnson, Vincent Jackson, etc. They are simply too fast for most tall cornerbacks to be able to stay close. Instead, you put a smaller but very agile corner on them and teach that young corner to stay in the back pocket of the receiver.
If you have a cornerback that can do that – stay with their man, have quick reflexes and good burst to cover ground when the receiver makes a cut– then the defense has made the job very difficult for the quarterback. The quarterback must make a great throw to where only the receiver can catch it which narrows the target window to a few feet on a moving target.
The Raiders drafted Hayden to be that pocket-cornerback. As Reggie McKenzie told the assembled writers after drafting Hayden on April 25th, “The thing with him, his man cover skills is what set him apart for us. He don’t lose a guy. He’s quick and he’s fast and he’s tough and aggressive in his play.”
Hayden has the qualities that are needed to be a good to great man corner. He has a smooth backpedal with fluid hips. That allows him to keep the action in front of him in his backpedal so that he can react if the ball is thrown quickly but he’s also able to transition from his backpedal to a run up the field if the receiver is going on a deeper route without losing momentum (if a corner or receiver has “stiff hips” it means they aren’t able to transition their movement easily).
Hayden has good speed, both short and long. He has good burst out of a stance and can dig into the ground and accelerate quickly. This explosive first step allows him to close on the receiver if the receiver runs a stop route or a comeback route and Hayden has to make up ground to get to the receiver and/or the ball.
Hayden also has the deep-speed to be able to hang with receivers on longer routes, clocking in a blazing fast 40-time that ranged from 4.33 to 4.40 (Hayden wasn’t able to work out at the Combine, where times are official, due to his injury, but he ran at a pro-day where times are non-official).
Hayden isn’t overly physical but he is an active and willing perimeter defender against the run. He does a good job in recognizing run plays and shaking his receiver to get in the way of the running back. Because of his size, he isn’t able to bring down most of the runners by himself, but he does wrap up well and is usually able to slow down the momentum of the rusher enough that his teammates arrive and assist in getting the ball-carrier down.
Here is an example of Hayden exhibiting the pocket-corner skills discussed above. In the clip, he is able to force the QB to make a throw to a spot where the receiver isn’t able to come down with it because Hayden’s coverage is good on the play.
Hayden starts very close to his man and he is in man coverage with no safety help on the play. His receiver is the primary read of the UCLA QB:
At the snap, Hayden keeps his eye on his receiver while backpedaling. He has a very good distance against his man in case the receiver makes a sudden break:
Hayden's receiver keeps going, so he turns without breaking stride and matches him step for step. At this point the QB has just thrown the ball but because of Hayden's positioning, the QB couldn't throw into the endzone, over the top of Hayden, like he wants to because Hayden is in a better position to make a play on a pass like that than the receiver. Instead he throws the ball behind the receiver and towards the outside shoulder because that is the only position where his receiver has a play on it:
I apologize for the blurriness of the screen captures from here but the camera was moving to capture the action and so they are the only shots I have. In this capture, the receiver has realized that the ball is coming to his outside shoulder and is turning to try to make a play on the ball. Hayden is reading his man and coming back trying to knock the pass down:
Although blurry, you can see the ball coming down towards the sideline and away from Hayden. It's a difficult pass to come down with even without Hayden diving in to break up the pass. WIth his coverage, there, the receiver is not able to come down with the reception:
Here's another look to see how Hayden has sealed off the end zone for the pass and is continuing to stay in the receivers pocket in order to lock out the receiver. The arrow shows the ball coming in at the difficult angle because of his coverage:
Hayden trusts in his own abilities, which is an important trait for every football player but more so for cornerbacks and quarterbacks than for any other position.
Unfortunately, at times Hayden appeared to be too confident and at times he backed off the line farther than he should in order to bait the quarterback to throw in his direction.
In these instances, he gambled that his burst forward would allow him to get to the ball in time to either break up the pass or, as he was sometimes able to do, make an interception. While I applaud the attempts to create plays, the risk frequently wasn’t worth the reward as he sometimes gave up easier completions than were necessary because he was playing too far back.
Here are two examples of him doing this in the same game, Houston vs Tulane in 2011.
In the first example, Hayden is lined up six yards off the line of scrimmage with his toes right on the 30-yard line, which is also where the first down marker is:
Hayden starts six yards away from his receiver and he seems to bait the QB, here, into throwing because he certainly knows where the first down marker is but he still backpedals an additional three yards, giving his receiver space to get to the first down marker:
At the point the ball is thrown, Hayden is still at the 27-yard line, three yards away from the receiver. He makes his break to try to make a play but in this instance, his gamble is not a good one:
Hayden can only tackle the receiver as the ball arrives before he does, in this instance, and Tulane is able to convert the first down. It's risks like this that Hayden needs to reduce in the NFL because the receivers and QBs are substantially better than what he faced at Houston:
The second example starts much the same way. It's 2nd & 5 instead of 3rd & 6 but Hayden is again six yards off the line of scrimmage on the defensive right side. Because it's only five yards to the first down marker, Hayden is lined up at the 40-yard line, one yard behind the first down:
Again, Hayden backpedals at the snap but he doesn't go as far this time, keeping the first down within a more manageable distance. At this point, he's only goneback one yard, to the 41:
The receiver turns at the 40 to get the first down. Hadyen is two yards away when the ball is in flight. This play looks like it's going to have a similar outcome to the play, earlier:
However, in this play, Hayden has timed his coverage much better and is able to get to the receiver and dive to break up the pass:
Only time will tell if Hayden is able to become an elite corner-back in the NFL. However, he has the skill-set to be as great as he wants. He is very well rounded and should have the ability to play in any scheme but especially as a man-cover corner-back.
I look forward to seeing Hayden in training camp and beyond and fully expect him to earn one of the starting corner-back positions right away.
For more Oakland Raiders news and analysis, follow me on Twitter @AsherMathews