If Casey Hayward ends up as the Green Bay Packers’ starting right cornerback on opening day — even if it’s by default after front-runner Davon House injured his shoulder — teams will surely try to test him.
They’ll see Tramon Williams on the left side and Charles Woodson either at safety or in the slot, and they’ll likely pick on the rookie Hayward.
And if Packers receiver James Jones is right, they won’t have much — if any — success. Jones, the Packers’ sixth-year veteran, has been equally impressed with House and Hayward, who along with Jarrett Bush have taken turns at that cornerback spot. After a few days, Bush gave way to House, who was impressive until he sustained a potentially serious shoulder injury while playing on special teams in last Thursday’s preseason opener at San Diego.
With Bush seemingly relegated to the dime (sixth defensive back) spot and his role on special teams and House out at least two-to-three weeks, the spotlight now is on Hayward.
“As a rookie, he’s extremely smart,” Jones said. “He understands the route concepts of what receivers are trying to do, what route comes in the red zone, what route comes on third-and-10. He understands a lot already, and it helps him play a lot faster. As a rookie and as a corner, once you understand that, you’re able to play fast, and it’s showing up with him.”
Hayward nearly had an interception on Sunday during the only competitive (starters vs. starters) team period of the day. He dropped what would have been a pick of an Aaron Rodgers pass intended for Jordy Nelson on the sideline.
The fifth cornerback taken in the draft, the 5-foot-11 and 192-pound Hayward went 62nd overall to the Packers, who weren’t concerned about his relative lack of speed. Hayward ran a 4.53 second 40-yard dash at the combine, and it was viewed as a knock against him. The four corners picked ahead of him — Morris Claiborne (4.49), Stephon Gilmore (4.39), Dre Kirkpatrick (4.52) and Janoris Jenkins (4.43) — all ran faster.
“He’s not that fast, but you’ll really never see him get beat over the top because he understands the game,” Jones said. “So you’ll really never see a deep ball caught on him because he’s a smart player.”
One of only three true freshmen to play for Vanderbilt in 2008, Hayward saw time as the nickel back and on special teams his first year. He then started 37 games over his next three seasons. As a senior, he tied for third in the country with seven interceptions.
“Everybody says stuff about his speed, but he makes up for it with his knowledge of route recognition,” said Packers rookie safety Sean Richardson, who was in the same recruiting class with Hayward at Vanderbilt and was one of the other two to play as a true freshman. “He’s got great hips and his transition skills are phenomenal.”
Richardson wasn’t surprised to hear Jones’ comments about how well prepared Hayward has been.
“He’s a film junkie,” Richardson said. “He’s always in the film room, and he knows a lot of tendencies. He knows what the quarterback’s tendency is (and his) route recognition, it is just amazing. All the time, if we have off days, he’s like, ‘I’m about to watch film or look at the playbook.’ That’s the way he’s always been.”
Hayward isn’t taking anything for granted. He got some snaps with the No. 1 defense early in camp, both in the slot and on the outside, but he has only been the full-time starter the last two practices.
House, who was off to a strong start before his shoulder injury, could still return before the Sept. 9 opener against San Francisco. Doctors are giving him time to rest and then will decide if he needs surgery or can play with a shoulder harness.
Sam Shields, the Packers’ No. 3 cornerback for much of the last two seasons, still could factor in, although he needs to return from the elbow injury he sustained on Aug. 6 and also must improve his play.
“I feel like I can play with these guys,” Hayward said. “I’ve just got to learn, and I think I’m going to get an opportunity. I’ve just got to make the best of it. We’ve had a couple of injuries, House got banged up, so whenever your opportunity comes, you have to be ready for it. I had a couple of days where I ran with the ones, so I guess everybody has gotten a little taste of the ones.”
The Packers haven’t opened the season with a rookie starting cornerback since Mike McKenzie did so in 1999. Ahmad Carroll started 11 games as a rookie in 2004, but he didn’t make his first start until Oct. 17 of that season. So if Hayward gets the job, look for him to get tested early and often.
“You could say that, but at the end of the day I know our quarterbacks know we have a lot of good cornerbacks,” Jones said. “And as a receiver, you feel like you can catch the ball against anybody, whether it’s Woodson, Tramon, House or a rookie. We really don’t look at it like that. but going against them, both (House and Hayward) are improving.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @RobDemovsky.