Hayward already proven as perimeter cornerback
With his back to the end zone, Vanderbilt's Casey Hayward squared his shoulders against the best wide receiver in the Southeastern Conference.
This was a tricky position. One-on-one against A.J. Green. First-and-goal from the 6-yard line. Georgia's quarterback had three plays to chuck the football high into the end zone just before halftime. The odds didn't favor any cornerback.
Sean Richardson, Hayward's college and NFL teammate, remembers thinking the same as he lined up in Vanderbilt's secondary that fall Saturday in 2010.
"It doesn't get much tougher than A.J. — he's elite," Richardson said of the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft, a receiver who made four Pro Bowls in his first four NFL seasons.
Richardson, the Green Bay Packers' fourth-year safety, vividly remembers that trip to Georgia during his junior season. For one, his team's 43-0 beat down was impossible to forget. But Vanderbilt's lone positive in the first half's final minute also stuck with him.
With no timeouts, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray tossed three straight passes to Green. Hayward, giving up five inches and more than 20 pounds, forced three straight incompletions.
"They went at him back, to back, to back," Richardson remembers, "and it was unsuccessful. Casey locked him down. I knew then that, yeah, he's serious. He's a great player."
It's tempting to think of Hayward merely as a "great" slot cornerback.
Entering the final season of his rookie contract, Hayward has lined up in the slot on almost 70 percent of his coverage snaps since the Packers drafted him in the second round. He's excelled there, too. Last season, according to Pro Football Focus, Hayward's plus-8.7 coverage grade easily led Packers defensive backs, five points higher than second-place Tramon Williams.
With Williams and Davon House signing free agent contracts elsewhere, Hayward finds himself in the most important offseason of his career. For the first time, he's expected to line up outside on the majority of his coverage snaps this fall.
But a "minor" foot injury forced Hayward to miss all of the Packers' offseason program, including minicamp and every organized team activity practice. For a player who has dealt with injuries since his second season, this summer could be another tricky situation.
Hayward said his foot will heal by training camp July 30, and won't hinder a transition to more snaps on the perimeter.
"I don't think it sets me back at all," Hayward said. "I know what type of player I am, (the coaches) know what type of player I am. When I'm on the field, I make talented plays. So whenever I'm healthy and on the field, I'm going to be full go, and I'm going to be ready to compete. And not just be the starting corner, but be the No. 1 corner.
"That's my whole goal, not just being a starting corner. I want to be one of those elite guys and be able to guard the No. 1s."
Hayward said there's still a chance he could rotate some in the slot. In his absence, the Packers have been prepping first-round draft pick Damarious Randall for the job. With no practice reps this offseason, it's premature to predict Hayward will line up on the perimeter exclusively.
With third-year defensive back Micah Hyde at nickel, the Packers are likely to need help outside more than inside when the season begins.
"It's not set in stone," Hayward said. "Nobody's role is going to be (set this early in the offseason), but I'm pretty sure they'll still want me to play some inside, the way I've been playing."
A full-time move outside would present challenges.
Things are simpler on the perimeter, with less action for a cornerback to digest. In man-to-man coverage, the job is to simply lock down a single receiver. In zone, a cornerback is responsible for one area of the field.
But the outside is where a cornerback's skillset is tested most. Playing in the NFC North, Hayward is about to see A.J. Green-caliber receivers much more frequently. The priority, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. said, is preventing game-changing, back-breaking passes deep downfield.
Versatility is required to counter an array of NFL receivers. Hayward said he's equally comfortable in press coverage or playing away from the line of scrimmage.
"I don't think it's a transition," Hayward said. "It's corner. I've been playing outside since I've been playing corner, since college and all. It's nothing new. It's going to be a little transition mentally-wise, but I think it's going to be smooth sailing for me, and I'll be fine."
While his snap count slants heavily inside, his production does not. Whitt said Hayward has routinely made plays as a perimeter corner, including four of his six rookie interceptions coming on the outside. Last season, Whitt said, the Packers had four cornerbacks worthy of starting on the perimeter — Sam Shields, Williams, House and Hayward.
With Williams and House gone, Whitt said it wouldn't be difficult for Hayward to slide outside.
"I have no issue with Casey playing outside," Whitt said. "I've never had an issue with Casey playing outside. I just had Tramon and Sam outside, so he played inside. But he's played outside before.
"I think this is a conversation that we really shouldn't be talking about, to be honest with you. Because I'm not worried about it. I have more to worry about than Casey Hayward outside. I have a lot more to worry about than that."
No matter where Hayward lines up, the Packers believe they'll get a productive player capable of making game-changing plays.
Richardson needs no convincing. Just a slot cornerback? Hayward's longtime teammate knows better. In the past eight seasons, Richardson said he's seen no limit to what Hayward can do on a football field.
"It won't be hard," Richardson said of Hayward moving to the perimeter. "It won't be hard at all. Casey is very intelligent when it comes to football. His athleticism, and his quickness, is off the charts. His route recognition is great, and he knows how to study. A lot of young guys don't know how to study film. They're just out there freelancing, or just doing their assignment. But Casey goes above that level, and he understands route recognition and what teams like to do and stuff.
"Most of the time when he's making plays, he's already seen that play. He's seen that route, and he's sitting there waiting for it to come. He's one of those flash players that's all over the place."
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