Casey Hayward didn’t say a whole lot when he first came to the Green Bay Packers as a second-round pick in 2012.
Really, the rookie cornerback didn’t need to.
All the attention went to future Pro Football Hall of Famer Charles Woodson, whose locker was located a few stalls down from Hayward's, and neighboring Pro Bowl cornerback Tramon Williams, a confident and well-spoken veteran whose gregarious personality was suited for the limelight.
It was Hayward’s job to watch, listen and speak when spoken to.
“I got to see some of the veteran guys like Charles, Tramon and how they lead,” Hayward said earlier this week. “I kind of took a back seat to that. I’m an observer, so I got to see the little things that they did.”
Over the past three years, the Packers’ draft-and-develop process has taken its usual course. Woodson and Williams are gone. Rotational veterans Jarrett Bush and Davon House, too. Instead, Hayward spent his fourth and possibly final season in Green Bay as the mouthpiece of the Packers’ young secondary.
Hayward came into the year as the favorite to succeed Williams as the boundary cornerback opposite Sam Shields. It’s a role he held for the first half of the season before rookie draft pick Damarious Randall jumped into the starting lineup on Nov. 8 against Carolina.
Randall’s stellar rookie season — 58 tackles, 14 passes defensed and three interceptions — mirrored Hayward's in 2012 when he had 53 tackles, 21 passes defensed and six picks. Likewise, Randall's production very well could end up making Hayward expendable in the same way he did Woodson in 2013.
The Packers are incredibly deep at cornerback with Shields, Randall and second-round pick Quinten Rollins all signed through the 2017 season. Furthermore, defensive back Micah Hyde is experienced at playing the slot and undrafted rookie LaDarius Gunter showed promise in his few opportunities.
So where does that leave Hayward? He hopes the path points him back to Green Bay, but nothing is guaranteed in the NFL during the spring.
“I hope so. But you just never know,” said Hayward when asked if he wants to be back with the Packers. “They’ve got some young guys here. Pretty sure they want these young guys to play regardless of if I’m here or not. The only thing I can control is what I control, and that was my play for this year.”
Hayward’s play was a point of contention this year because of the lack of interceptions. It seems almost inconceivable a cornerback who was lauded for his ball-hawking abilities early in his career would be shut out in 18 games this year.
It’s easy to write off Hayward for that, but you’d be overlooking his other contributions to the defense. His tackling steadily improved throughout the course of the season, leading to a career-high 65 tackles. His 56 solo tackles were second on the defense only to second-year safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Perhaps the most important void Hayward filled in the cornerbacks room was the leadership that was lost after Williams' and Bush’s departures. A primary communicator in the heart of Green Bay’s secondary, Hayward became a respected voice in a group of several soft-spoken, low-key individuals.
“He’s taken the leadership role,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said last month. “There’s only two vets in there — Sam and Casey. Sam doesn’t say two words and so Casey does most of the talking. Hopefully, we can get the room to where it’s not just so much me and Casey talking. I want the whole room to talk, but you know, Quinten doesn’t talk and Gunt doesn’t talk, so I’ve got a bunch of quiet guys. D (Randall) talks all the time, but isn’t talking about football.
“Casey’s done a really nice job in that respect. He’s a leader.”
The Packers find themselves in an interesting situation with their secondary. Six months ago, Hayward and Hyde were peppered with the question at every turn last summer about how the Packers were going to replace Williams and House in their secondary.
The future turned out to be even brighter than the past. While Cleveland and Jacksonville paid handsomely for Williams and House’s services, the Packers now have two long-term cogs at cornerback in the supremely gifted Randall and hard-hitting Rollins, who can either play inside and outside.
The Packers wound up jumping from 10th to sixth in passing defense (227.6 yards per game) and remaining seventh in opposing passer rating (80.1) for the second consecutive season. Many would have seen the two rookie additions as a slight, but Hayward never bristled at helping the youngsters.
“Casey’s helped me since the day I stepped in here,” said Hyde, a fifth-round pick in 2013. “We drafted two rookie corners in the first and second round this year and that hasn’t affected him to help out those guys and help improve their mental state, actually everyone’s mental state. You have to give kudos to him about that. He’s a team player and we all respect that about him.”
It’s a good time to be an NFL cornerback. With how prevalent spread offenses have become, it almost has become a prerequisite for defenses to have four or five reliable options at the position. Last year, 12 cornerbacks received multi-year contracts averaging at least $5 million in salary.
House, who had 14 career starts in his first four NFL seasons, received a four-year, $25 million contract with $10 million guaranteed from the Jaguars. Williams, 32, was one of the last to sign, agreeing to a three-year, $21 million deal with $10 million guaranteed from the Browns.
At 26, Hayward should be an attractive option to NFL teams who’s open to playing a dual role like he did this season. Still, he hopes to get a chance to occasionally play outside wherever he lands much like he did near the end of the year when he played outside in the base before moving inside in the sub-packages.
Working to Hayward’s advantage should be the fact he’s the healthiest he has been since his rookie year despite playing more than 900 defensive snaps after a recurring hamstring issue limited him to three games in 2013 and then requiring offseason surgery to repair a stress fracture this past year.
“I didn’t even have an offseason this past year because of my foot,” said Hayward, who had a screw inserted to help the foot heal. “Everything I was doing earlier was off my God-given ability. My foot and my injury got better as the season went on, and that’s why you could see my play spike up.”
On Monday, Hayward cleared out his locker for perhaps his final time at Lambeau Field. If that’s the case, the 5-foot-11, 192-pound cornerback left with no regrets. He plans to spend the offseason training for his next opportunity near his home in Atlanta.
Wherever that stop is, Hayward will take the lessons he learned from his first four NFL seasons with him.
“I don’t mind talking and I learned that from those guys,” said Hayward of Woodson and Williams. “Some of the little things people don’t see that I was doing behind the scenes. On the field, I have to make a lot of calls on the field, play from inside to outside, go from outside to inside. I think that was pivotal to the young guys and things like that.
“But those young guys did a great job with learning the playbook and listening. Hopefully, they can continue to do that.”
With or without Hayward.
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