The newest Lions cornerback has had to battle through some serious issues.
Reactions were mixed when the Detroit Lions signed former Oakland Raiders first-round pick D.J. Hayden to a one-year deal. The first contract numbers that were reported were over five million, though the later numbers were much more manageable. One thing that is clear no matter which way you look at the numbers is that D.J. Hayden factors into the team’s plans for 2017. The team clearly expects Hayden to either start across from Darius Slay or play in the slot. His workout bonus implies that he’s on the roster in a few months, while the playing time incentives protect the team if he is unable to play due to injury or poor play forces him to ride the pine.
D.J. Hayden (Lions) $3.75M, $1M signing bonus, $2.25M gtd salary $2M ($1.25M gtd), $31,250 per game active, $250K workout bon, $1.5M incent.— Aaron Wilson (@AaronWilson_NFL) March 12, 2017
The problem with D.J. Hayden isn’t talent. Coming out of Houston in 2013, Hayden was considered by some to be the best cornerback in the draft, even ahead of Dee Milliner, who was drafted a few picks ahead of him. The drawback was always health as the former Coug tore a vein in his heart during some routine passing drills and nearly died as a senior, which you can, for some morbid reason, view online (Warning: Not gruesome, but he did nearly die). The injury, which normally only happens during car accidents or other instances of serious trauma, has anywhere from a 50% to 95% fatality rate. He was lucky to be alive and after making a full recovery he was drafted 12th overall in the 2013 NFL draft.
I wish I could say it is a fairy tale ending for Hayden, but his transition from college to the pros has been anything but positive. He has struggled in starter duties and even when moved about the formations he seemed lost and out of place. We often associate the term ‘grabby’ with players like Nevin Lawson (source) and Quandre Diggs (source), but Hayden puts each of them to shame. In fact, in 2016 Hayden had nearly as many penalties on third and fourth down alone (7) as Lawson and Diggs had total combined penalties (8). His six pass interference penalties are twice as many as Darius Slay had despite playing a smaller role in the Raiders defense. He has been, in the truest usage of the term, a penalty machine.
None of this is to say that Hayden is without skill. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I have serious doubts Bob Quinn or any GM would have brought him into town if they didn’t think he had a chance to be productive. The Detroit Lions have one of the best secondary coaching staffs in the NFL, despite recent failures of the defense as a whole, and if Hayden’s penalties and coverage issues are fixable, this is exactly the type of place you’d want him to be to try to correct them. It probably helps that his offseason workout partners are Darius Slay and Glover Quin.
What’s really going to define this signing is going to be playing time and health. On top of his life or death scare as a senior at Houston, Hayden has struggled mightily with injuries in the NFL. He popped his hamstring last season which led him to being placed on IR. He has dealt with numerous other injuries which, when combined with his poor play, has seen him passed over on the depth chart in Oakland and eventually set him on the free agent path that landed him in Detroit.
New #Lions CB DJ Hayden was 1 of only 2 cornerbacks to not miss a tackle in run OR pass defense in 2016 for the #Raiders. https://t.co/XfTrlsXdfa— Cameron Mellor (@CamMellor) March 10, 2017
Hayden is known as a sure tackler and despite his previous deficiencies that is an area the Lions needed help in 2016. Relying on Quandre Diggs worked in 2015, but was a problem in 2016, as was the cavalcade of replacements like Asa Jackson. The Detroit Lions pass defense needs a lot of work, but the ability of the secondary to assist in run support is also an area that needed some focus so it’s nice to see it addressed. All told, D.J. Hayden’s contract puts him in a position to almost assuredly make the final Lions roster, while his talents ought to make him worthy of the shot he is now being given. It isn’t the big improvement the team needs at cornerback, but it’s a start to bringing in the type of players that Bob Quinn wants to see in the secondary.