Among the points that didn’t make the cut for my column about Casey Hayward today is that he appears to be a front-runner for NFL defensive rookie of the year, an award Charles Woodson won with the Oakland Raiders in 1998.
Hayward leads all rookies in interceptions (five) and passed defended (16) and has been a key player for a Packers defense that has improved from No. 19 in points allowed and No. 32 in yards allowed last season to Nos. 10 and 16, respectively, through 10 games this season.
Among the other top rookie defenders are Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly (97 tackles); Tampa Bay safety Mark Barron (57 tackles, one interception) and cornerback Leonard Johnson (three interceptions); New England defensive end Chandler Jones (six sacks), outside linebacker Dont’a Hightower (35 tackles, three sacks); and safety Tavon Wilson (four interceptions, six passes defended); and Philadelphia defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (three sacks).
Hayward has been good in coverage as a rookie, especially in the last three games playing in the slot position in the nickel grouping in place of injured Charles Woodson. The one thing he hasn’t done as well as Woodson is blitz. Hayward has no sacks, and last week at Detroit, he had a clean shot at quarterback Matthew Stafford but flew past when Stafford stepped up in the pocket. That allowed him to complete a 17-yard pass.
“Is (Hayward) going to be Charles Woodson (as a blitzer)? I don’t think so,” said Joe Whitt, the Packers’ cornerbacks coach. “But I think he’ll be adequate. He missed a sack, he had a layup, we missed that, didn’t come under control. That comes with time. A lot of young guys when they see themselves coming free at the quarterback they don’t understand you must come under control or you will run by.”
Whitt said that at the NFL scouting combine he cares more about the players’ interviews than their performances in the physical testing. He said that Hayward was one of the three smartest defensive backs he’s interviewed in his six combines, along with Javier Arenas, a second-round pick by Kansas City in 2010, and Eric Weddle, a second-round pick by San Diego in 2007.
“The thing I got from Casey at the combine, he was a very, very sharp guy,” Whitt said. “He understands packages, he understood what the coaches were asking him to do. I had the feeling he’d be able to come in early and contribute in that way because he really understands defensive football and offensive concepts. I was taken aback by his knowledge of the game.”
Whitt said he watched game video of four of Hayward’s games from his senior season at Vanderbilt . He came away most impressed by his play against South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffrey, who was selected at No. 45 overall in this year’s draft, 17 picks ahead of Hayward. Hayward had two interceptions in that game.
“(Hayward) actually was wrong on the two interceptions,” Whitt said, “but you saw the instincts, he knew what was coming. He voided his coverage but he went and got the ball.”