The tattoo hides discreetly underneath Casey Hayward’s right arm, a permanent reminder of how far the Green Bay Packers cornerback has come in his journey with football.
Hayward got it after the Packers made a childhood dream come true and drafted him in the second round out of Vanderbilt in 2012. It’s a simple design featuring his draft year in bolded numerals with the NFL insignia etched below it.
It’s crazy how fast the time has gone for all parties involved. A wry smile crosses the face of Packers coach Mike McCarthy while discussing how the 26-year-old Hayward, now in his fourth NFL season, suddenly has become a veteran on the defense.
“With Casey, I guess (he) would fall into the category of being an older player around here,” McCarthy said Friday.
Hayward has become more than just veteran. He’s now a key communicator on a unit that has seen Ryan Pickett, A.J. Hawk and Tramon Williams move on in recent years. The most vocal player in cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt’s meetings, Hayward is a respected leader among a sea of rookies and young players.
Many would argue Hayward had his best NFL season during his rookie year. He filled a playmaking void when Charles Woodson was out for seven games with a fractured collarbone. He finished third in defensive rookie of the year voting after snatching six picks with 21 passes defensed.
Turnovers are glamorous. It’s what every defensive back at every level of football wants to accomplish each time he steps onto the field. It’s not the only way you can make a contribution, though. It’s a tough, but important lesson Hayward has learned in what so far has been an interception-less season.
Hayward points out two occasions when he has had an interception wiped out by penalty. Whitt diagrams several more instances in recent weeks where the 5-foot-11, 192-pound cornerback was in position to make a big play. If the ball doesn’t slip out of Jay Cutler’s grip against Chicago, he has no doubt Hayward would have returned it for a pick-6.
“Casey has been solid,” Whitt said. “He has more winning performances than anybody else in the room. Just hasn’t intercepted the ball.”
The departure of Williams and Davon House left the Packers with only three cornerbacks – Hayward, Sam Shields and Micah Hyde – with any NFL experience. With how much defensive coordinator Dom Capers utilizes his sub-packages, the Packers spent their first two picks in the 2015 draft on the position.
Hayward started the first 10 games, playing every down with Shields before the coaching staff no longer could keep Damarious Randall from a larger role. Like Hayward in 2012, the rookie first-round pick has transitioned seamlessly to the NFL with two picks and 13 passes defensed.
Randall’s promotion last month pushed Hayward back into the slot of the nickel and dime sub-packages. He’s practically a starter with the Packers operating in those packages roughly 75 percent of the time. Hayward stayed inside last Sunday against Dallas even after Shields left with a concussion.
“I’m the best inside guy in the NFL. Why not have me in there?” Hayward asked rhetorically. “We kind of got three starters that can play. You have two that can play that only play outside (Shields and Randall) and another one that plays outside and inside, which is me. I’m going to be the guy that plays inside when we need to go inside, especially with how much we play. I think we might play it the most in the NFL.”
Whitt said the defense chose to use second-round pick Quinten Rollins outside against the Cowboys when Shields went down because it wanted Hayward communicating in the heart of the defense, especially with rookie fourth-round pick Jake Ryan now starting at inside linebacker.
Whitt didn’t need to say a word to Hayward about it. In Hayward’s mind, it comes with the professional territory. The past three years have been humbling, especially after he wasn't able to follow up a spectacular rookie season because of a recurring hamstring issue that limited him to three games in 2013.
Regardless of the interceptions, Capers believes Hayward has been an important piece of a secondary that has an average age of 24.6 years.
"He’s normally going to be in the right place and understand where he fits into the defense," Capers said. "I think he’s much more aware of the defense and is capable of doing a number of things inside. I don’t get too caught up (in the lack of interceptions). We haven’t had the number of picks overall that we’ve had in some years here in the past. But it’s not been like he’s had opportunities and dropped a lot."
There’s no doubt in Hayward’s mind that he’s a better player today than he was as a rookie despite what happened in 2013 and this past offseason when he had a screw inserted into his foot to help heal a stress fracture after the 2014 campaign.
After struggling to get on the field last year – he played roughly 39 percent of defensive snaps – Hayward has seen the third-most playing time on defense this year. His 749 snaps trail only safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (883) and linebacker Clay Matthews (872), according to Pro Football Focus.
Hayward led all NFL slot cornerbacks with only one catch allowed every 14.1 coverage snaps a year ago. That ratio has dipped to 9.0 this season, good for 14th. He’s missing the turnovers and has only six passes defensed, but is on pace for a career high in tackles with 55 through the first 13 games.
It’s the area many in the organization feel he has made his biggest strides since his rookie year.
“I’m light, light, light, light years ahead of where I was my rookie year,” Hayward said. “I kind of know the defense. I know what offenses are doing. I’m a student of the game. Not too many things trick me. When I was a rookie, I was out there just playing. I was more playing and hoping the ball came my way.”
To the best of Hayward’s knowledge, there haven’t been any discussions between his agent and the Packers about a potential extension. After giving Mike Daniels a four-year, $41 million deal this week, general manager Ted Thompson will have tough decisions to make on his 14 free agents this spring.
Much like the turnovers, Hayward isn’t concerned about it. Maybe that long-awaited interception will turn up Sunday against Oakland. Maybe the contract extension soon follows. Whatever the case may be, Hayward is going to keep doing what he does.
The tattoo serves as a reminder of how far he has come. It also tells him that he belongs, whether it’s in Green Bay or elsewhere.
“Potentially anything can happen. I’m pretty much not even worried about it,” Hayward said. “I feel like I’ve been playing at a high level. It’s hard to keep me off the field. People want to get more turnovers and things like that, but sometimes the ball don’t bounce your way to that aspect. In other years it did, but this year I’ve been playing at a high level no matter the turnovers coming or not.
“I’m pretty much just worrying about playing at a high level and not worrying about things I can’t control. Those things will come. I have faith in all of that. Everything can work out.”
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