Oakland Raiders: Can Sean Smith Help Salvage D.J. Hayden’s Career?

Sep 27, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Duke Johnson (29) runs the ball on Oakland Raiders cornerback D.J. Hayden (25) during the second half at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Raiders won 27-20. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 27, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Duke Johnson (29) runs the ball on Oakland Raiders cornerback D.J. Hayden (25) during the second half at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Raiders won 27-20. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

Oakland Raiders cornerback D.J. Hayden has been a frequent target of criticism among Raider fans – and for good reason – but can veteran newcomer Sean Smith help salvage his career?

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The Oakland Raiders haven’t exactly gotten sterling play from their cornerbacks in quite a while. When GM Reggie McKenzie selected D.J. Hayden in the first round – thirteenth overall – all the way back in 2013, it was with the belief that he would help shore up Oakland’s porous secondary. Needless to say, McKenzie’s plans for Hayden haven’t exactly come to fruition.

Ever since his arrival in the East Bay, Hayden’s tenure in Oakland’s secondary has been marked by rampant inconsistency. Add in statements by the coaching staff that he’s not a great practice player and doesn’t max out in terms of effort, and it’s easy to see why he has thus far, been considered a first round draft bust.

But as McKenzie and HC Jack Del Rio shape and mold this team, bringing in a number of key veterans like Kelechi Osemele, Bruce Irvin, and of course, Sean Smith, brighter days appear to be on the horizon for the Silver and Black.

And strangely enough, the addition of Smith will not only benefit the team as a whole, but may even benefit Hayden the most.

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Obviously, the Raiders have their starting cornerbacks set with Smith on one side, last season’s reclamation project turned huge difference maker, David Amerson, locking down the other, and Travis Carrie manning the slot. Given the fact that Oakland has its presumptive starters, some might be tempted to ask, “how does that benefit Hayden?”

Simple. Ever since Hayden broke into the league, he’s not had a veteran mentor to really take him under their wing and show him what it takes to be an NFL cornerback. Oh sure, he’s played alongside the likes of Tracy Porter, Mike Jenkins, and Carlos Rogers, but those guys were past their primes and were never really seen as more than rental players. They never truly factored into Oakland’s long term plans.

But with the addition of Smith, the Raiders have an eye on the future. Smith is a guy who is young enough to still be in his prime and has enough experience to be a savvy veteran player.

To put it another way, Hayden has never played alongside a cornerback of Smith’s caliber.

And Smith is coming in knowing that he’s going to be the leader of a young secondary group and is expected to take not just a leadership, but a mentorship role as well.

"“We have a very, very young team back there, especially in the secondary. I guess my job is to come in here and make them better mentally because they have all the talent and all the tools to make plays. Just have to get them up to par with me from a football IQ standpoint.”"

It’s a role that Smith is embracing, and if Hayden is willing to listen, put in the work, and grow as a player, it could be the thing that helps salvage his career. With the Raiders declining the fifth year option on his rookie deal, and him not putting very much on tape that is going to make potential suitors excited, Hayden’s future is very much in doubt at this point.

All he needs to do is lean on Smith and actually heed the veteran’s advice.

"“It’s all mental, just trying to get guys to see the game like I see it, that way I can slow it down for them. A lot of them go out there and play instead of reacting.”"

To be fair, over his three seasons with the team, Hayden has shown flashes of ability. He’s made a number of truly fantastic plays. But he usually follows those up a play that leaves you shaking your head. Not only that, but he’s also a penalty flag magnet, most often for grabbing a guy as they run by him.

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Most people have written Hayden off as a bust and don’t believe he has the skills to be a solid cornerback in the NFL. But Smith apparently sees something others don’t. Smith believes that it’s never too late for Hayden to step up to the challenge and be a solid football player.

"“The thing about football is you can always reinvent yourself. I had a chance to meet with him for a brief second. There wasn’t too much to talk about. Just come out here with a whole new mind frame, a whole new mindset. Trying to repaint your image. The past is the past, but you come out here and work, compete and try to get better. As long as you put it on tape, you’ll always have a job in this league. So, he has nothing to worry about.”"

The past is indeed the past, but if history is any sort of guide, Hayden should have plenty to worry about. From his penchant for drawing flags, to the perception that he doesn’t put in the work, to his horribly inconsistent play on the field, what he has on tape isn’t going to inspire a lot of confidence in teams – including the Raiders – who might be looking at bringing him in.

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But Smith is right about one thing – in football, as in life, you can always reinvent yourself. But that’s going to require a tremendous amount of work and dedication. Not only will Hayden have to pour himself, body and soul, into improving as a football player, he’s also going to have to work even harder to overcome the image he’s already created for himself.

Also, it wouldn’t hurt to lean on and listen to somebody who’s been there before, somebody who’s had some success in the league, and somebody who is willing to help him – finally – unlock his potential.