DJ Hayden's rookie season in the NFL never really got off the ground.
After being limited the entire offseason and much of training camp by heart surgery, Hayden had a rough rookie year at cornerback for the Oakland Raiders before being shut down halfway through the season because of a sports hernia injury.
Now after an entire offseason to rebuild the strength he lost from the near-fatal heart injury in November 2012, Hayden wants to show the Raiders that he can be the player they envisioned when they drafted him 12th overall in the 2013 draft.
“He's light years ahead of where he was at this point last year,” coach Dennis Allen said Tuesday. “Not just from a physical standpoint, but really from a mental standpoint, too. I think he realizes now that everything's going to be fine, he's going to be OK, and now he can really focus on getting better as a football player. I like what I've seen out of DJ so far.”
The Raiders didn't get to see much from Hayden last season after using a first-round pick on him despite a near-fatal practice injury while in college at Houston.
After participating in rookie minicamp, Hayden got hurt again during the first full-team practice of the offseason and had to undergo surgery to repair an abdominal scar related to the original surgery.
Hayden didn't get cleared for contact until midway through training camp and never truly caught up.
“Here are all my teammates out there working and I'm hooked up to IVs,” Hayden said. “It might mess up anyone's head a little bit. But I'm way over that now and I'm just ready for this next season to start.”
He played about two-thirds of Oakland's defensive snaps as the nickel cornerback during the first eight games with his highlights being an interception against San Diego and a forced fumble in Kansas City.
But he had a disastrous performance against Philadelphia, allowing two touchdown catches and another deep pass in his final game before sports hernia surgery. For the season, Hayden allowed 26 catches on 40 throws with him in coverage for 376 yards and three touchdowns. He had an interception and allowed a 110 passer rating against.
“I feel like not only do I have something to prove but I feel like we all have something to prove because of our season last year,” Hayden said. “We're way better than that. I just can't wait to get this season going.”
Hayden said he is mentally sharper this season because of the confidence in his health and his knowledge of the defense, which allows him to react more than think in the field.
But Allen said Hayden is still like a “quasi-rookie” because of his limited playing and practice time last season.
“He's not necessarily starting on ground zero like most of these rookies are so he's got a little bit of a head start, but yet he still has a lot of room to grow,” Allen said. “There was a reason why we took him where we took him last year. We feel great about the player and we're excited to see how he can develop.”
The biggest change this season for Hayden is he was able to work out more strenuously this offseason and added some needed strength.
He said he is about 5 to 10 pounds heavier, which will allow him to be better at fighting off blocks, making tackles in the run game and match up better with physical receivers.
NOTES: The Raiders had almost full participation with the only healthy absence being LB Kevin Burnett, who could lose his starting job to first-round pick Khalil Mack. … DT Antonio Smith did not take part after undergoing surgery for an injury sustained in training earlier this offseason. … OL Lucas Nix also did not participate because of an undisclosed injury.