Oakland Raiders May Be Best Served By Moving On From D.J. Hayden


The Oakland Raiders made a statement this offseason by letting veteran cornerback Tarell Brown – who’d played well enough for them in 2014 – walk as a free agent and going all in on their three young, inexperienced cornerbacks, Keith McGill, Travis Carrie, and D.J. Hayden. It was a statement some might call bold and others might call foolish. Whatever you choose to call it though, it’s a statement that seems to be coming back to bite them in the backside.

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The Raiders expended a lot of effort in upgrading their defense this offseason – more specifically, they expended a lot of effort in gearing up their defense to stop the run. They brought in proven run stuffers like Dan Williams, Curtis Lofton, and Malcolm Smith to go along with Justin Ellis, Khalil Mack, Sio Moore, and Justin Tuck.

It’s a defensive front, that on paper looks fierce and appears more than capable of stopping the run – vastly improving on the 120 yards per game last season’s squad gave up – and has the potential to be a top ten unit in the league.

Which makes the decision to all but ignore the secondary all the more curious.

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Of course, the ageless Charles Woodson – Oakland’s moral compass and unquestioned leader – has returned, and Oakland did bring in Nate Allen from Philadelphia to solidify their safety spots. But the moves left many wondering, what about the cornerbacks?

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To be fair, all three of Oakland’s young corners, McGill, Carrie, and Hayden have all flashed incredible potential and playmaking ability. But they’ve also, at times, displayed a maddening inconsistency. While Carrie and McGill can perhaps be forgiven – they were rookies last season, after all – Hayden, the former somewhat controversial first round pick, is entering his third season in the league and is quickly running out of excuses.

Yes, injuries limited him to just eighteen games over his first two full seasons in the league, which has somewhat understandably slowed his development on the field. But healthy this offseason, Hayden has looked like anything but a former first round pick over the course of two preseason games. And in the recently concluded game with the Vikings, Hayden looked downright terrible.

The one play that Hayden is catching the most heat for occurred early in the second quarter with the Raiders holding a 6-0 lead. Hayden, playing in the slot, found himself badly out of position and letting Vikings receiver Charles Johnson get behind him coming off the line of scrimmage. Minnesota quarterback Teddy Bridgewater threw a perfectly accurate, big time pass that Johnson hauled in for a score and left Hayden with egg on his face. Again.

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  • While some are willing to give Hayden a pass on that touchdown reception simply because it was a perfect throw. But that wasn’t the only poor play Hayden made on Saturday night. Facing a third and long, the Raiders defense appeared to hold Minnesota and force a punt. But Hayden, well away from the play, was flagged for illegal contact, which extended the drive. On an different series, Hayden played too far off his receiver on a third and seven and gave up eleven yards on the pass, extending yet another drive.

    Hayden’s mistakes were many and varied on Saturday night. Bridgewater and the Vikings rightly saw him as the weak link on the defense and went after him accordingly. According to Pro Football Focus, Bridgewater targeted Hayden on five of his fourteen pass attempts, completing three of them.

    Yes, Bridgwater’s touchdown pass was the sort of pass that elite quarterbacks make. But the NFL is filled with elite level quarterbacks, and there are some pretty good passers in his own division in Peyton Manning and Phillip Rivers. If Hayden can’t make that play against a relatively inexperienced receiver like Johnson, how is he going to defend the likes of Demaryius Thomas, Jeremy Maclin, and Keenan Allen?

    Hayden has been inconsistent whenever he’s been on the field throughout his relatively young career. He’s made some tremendously athletic plays, but he’s also been absolutely scorched on others. While Carrie and McGill may not be generating a lot of headlines with highlight reel plays, they certainly aren’t generating headlines for sloppy and terrible play, either.

    Unless he can somehow put it all together and turn it around over the last two exhibition games of the season, Hayden is looking less and less likely to be a viable option on the corner when the season starts. While a revitalized and ferocious defensive front can mask a lot of deficiencies on that side of the ball, they can’t mask them all. The secondary needs to be able to make plays, and at this point, Hayden does not seem capable of making them.

    As the teams begin to cut down their rosters ahead of the regular season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see GM Reggie McKenzie and HC Jack Del Rio looking for solutions among the castoffs. While giving the young guys a chance to develop and shine isn’t necessarily a bad thing, having a veteran presence in the group who can still play at a high level while mentoring the youngsters wouldn’t hurt either.

    Unless and until Oakland brings in a veteran cornerback – perhaps something they should have done from the start – look for McGill, Carrie, and Neiko Thorpe to start getting the majority of the snaps with the first team defense.

    The pressure is on Oakland’s young corners, and as the demonstrably weakest unit on the defensive side of the ball, they are under a microscope. The Raiders need players who can rise up and answer that bell. And to this point, Hayden doesn’t appear up for the challenge.

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