McGinn: Parting ways with Hayward was right move

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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San Diego Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward celebrates an interception against the Houston Texans.

GREEN BAY – The case of cornerback Casey Hayward underscores anew the uncertainty that accompanies the major personnel decisions general managers must make all the time in the National Football League.

Green Bay’s Ted Thompson evaluated past performance, player health, cost and replacement options before deciding to let Hayward walk as an unrestricted free agent in March.

Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you.

If we knew then what we know now, the Packers would be a better team if Hayward still were on their roster. Injuries and disappointing performance have beset the cornerback position just as Hayward has been a model of ball-hawking and durability with the San Diego Chargers.

It’s more than fair for reporters to second-guess NFL decision-makers, at least in reasonable fashion.

GMs have at their disposal intimate personal/character and injury history, lengthy scouting reports from those within the organization with hours upon hours to make such evaluations, the frank assessments of the head coach and the assistant coaches, and analytical databases brimming with studies designed to prevent mistakes before they occur.

Essentially, reporters operate alone relying on their instincts, their experiences and their telephone to guide their judgments.

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With all the resources available to the typically high-paid general manager, he should be expected to get it right. It’s their job. And, if those decisions don’t pan out, they should hear about it from their superiors and the media.

At the same time, it’s incumbent upon reporters to examine the variables that were in play when the decision was made.

My conclusion is the same now as it was nine months ago. Thompson made the right call not to re-sign Hayward.

Sportradar is an independent analytics firm that tracks the NFL. It compiles a statistical breakdown known as “ballhawks,” which by definition is the combination of interceptions, passes defensed, forced fumbles and sacks.

Last season, Hayward played 86.9% of the defensive snaps in Green Bay. His total of seven (seven passes defensed, nothing else) tied him for 122nd place in the NFL.

Of the 22 players tied with seven, Hayward’s playing time ranked second. Of his teammates, Damarious Randall led with 17 followed by Sam Shields (16), Micah Hyde (10), Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (nine) and Quinten Rollins (nine). Morgan Burnett also had seven.

Through Week 12 this season, Hayward ranks second on the Chargers’ defense in playing time at 89.8%. He also has 22 ballhawks, which gives him the NFL lead by one over Kansas City’s Marcus Peters.

His total of six interceptions also leads the league. He has returned the six for 100 yards, which ranks fourth, and one touchdown.

Hayward began the season as the No. 3 cornerback playing in his customary slot position. Jason Verrett, a top-10 cornerback, manned the right side and veteran Brandon Flowers was on the left.

Verrett started the first four games before reconstructive knee surgery ended his season. Flowers will miss his sixth game Sunday because of a concussion.

Thus, Hayward has had to play outside, which he did extensively as a rookie in 2012 for the injured Shields, as well as inside. With the secondary falling apart Hayward has stood tall as a playmaker and leader for a defense that ranks 19th in yards and 26th in points.

“He’s had a phenomenal year,” Chargers coach Mike McCoy said last week. “He deserves a lot of credit for helping our defense. He’s done a great job of fitting in.”

Watching Hayward’s six interceptions hearkens back to 2012, when the second-round draft choice from Vanderbilt became the Packers’ first cornerback to make the all-rookie team. His six picks led the Packers.

Four of Hayward’s interceptions this season came in press coverage. He was lined up outside right on three, outside left on two and slot right on one.

You might assign three of the six to the great individual effort category.

Last Sunday, Hayward ran all the way across the field to snare a sideline pass to Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins. In Week 3, he made a tremendous break on a quick out to pick the Colts’ Andrew Luck. In Week 2, he closed fast on a slant by Jacksonville’s Marqise Lee, tipped the pass up and caught it on his back.

He appeared to bait Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota into a sideline interception. Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles made a terrible deep throw but Hayward was in perfect position to intercept. When Denver’s Jordan Norwood dropped a slant, he knew enough to let his man go and was on the spot to take it 24 yards to the house.

Joe Whitt, the cornerbacks coach in Green Bay since 2009, referred to Hayward as a “ball magnet” many times during their four years together. He wasn’t last year but he has been this year.

Two NFL personnel directors who have studied Hayward throughout his career said the scheme change from predominantly press man-to-man in Green Bay to mostly zone in San Diego has contributing to his improved play.

“He’s a zone guy,” said one scout. “He’s got great eyes. The ball always goes to him. They do a combination of zone and ‘quarters.’ In John’s (Pagano, the Chargers defensive coordinator) stuff he’s flourishing. He’s played better than I thought he would. Very good.”

There are no accurate barometers of how often Hayward has been beat this year. Some independent analytic firms are just guessing when it comes to responsibility for pass plays.

In his last season for the Packers, Hayward gave up 8½ passes of 20 yards or more, which far exceeded his total of four in both 2012 and ’14 (he had none in ’13, but played just 87 snaps). Randall led with 13, and Rollins and Hyde tied for third with five.

His poorest game came in Denver when Demaryius Thomas ran by him twice for completions totaling 77 yards.

Some of the 8½ explosive gains were the result of Hayward’s missed tackles. Playing a finesse game, he missed a total of 14 tackles, five more than anyone else on defense and six more than his career high set in ’12.

According to Sportradar, Hayward has missed nine tackles in the Chargers’ first 11 games.

“Casey just doesn’t have a ton of speed,” said one scout. “His first couple steps are pretty good but he just doesn’t have the top-end speed to run with people deep. When he plays the short stuff and has a chance to jump routes, he’s pretty good.

“What he is is a smart player who knows his limitations. There are guys out there that will just challenge you and they don’t realize they’re not as fast as the guy they’re competing against. I think he knows his limitations and gives himself a little bit more room.”

When the free-agent signing period began March 9, Hayward was No. 9 at cornerback in my rankings. Of the nine others in the top 10, six changed teams and three re-signed with their old teams.

If asked to pick a team today, one scout said he’d take Hayward over five of the nine: No. 2 Sean Smith, No. 3 Prince Amukamara, No. 4 Tracy Porter, No. 6 Jerraud Powers and No. 10 Terence Newman. The scout said he’d take No. 1 Janoris Jenkins, No. 5 Patrick Robinson, No. 7 Morris Claiborne and No. 8 Brent Grimes over Hayward.

Hayward’s three-year contract with San Diego, which was signed five days into free agency, was worth $15.3 million ($6.8 million guaranteed).

“I’m pretty sure Ted’s thinking was I can always replace him,” said the scout. “He had to feel good about his group. It’s, like, ‘Hey, good luck, if you can get paid, then get paid. Like what you did but we don’t have room for you.’ ”

The Packers’ depth chart in March read Shields, Randall, Rollins, LaDarius Gunter, Demetri Goodson and Robertson Daniel. Hyde was a cornerback and safety.

You can’t fault Thompson for expecting major first-to-second-season jumps from Randall, Rollins, Gunter and Daniel.

Neither Randall nor Rollins developed, and then injuries struck them down: six games for Randall, three for Rollins.

Shields, who suffered a season-ending concussion in Week 1, missed the equivalent of six games with a concussion and shoulder injury in 2015. It was the fourth concussion of his career, and if concussions weren’t a factor in deliberations over Hayward they should have been.

The Packers also had high hopes for Gunter, and those hopes did bear fruit. He has been the bellwether for a besieged position, and even Goodson played 182 snaps at a respectable level before a knee injury ended his season in Game 10.

The Packers have played less press-man coverage this season because of the injuries at cornerback. But, last winter, Thompson could look at Hayward as possibly the least proficient press-man player on the team.

Plus, no matter how you slice it, Hayward almost never made a play in 18 games last season.

Counting playoffs, his rate of passes defensed (one every 116.4 snaps) ranked last among the six cornerbacks in Green Bay. Fifteen players on defense contributed at least one turnover play but Hayward, whose 1,048 snaps ranked third on the platoon, didn’t even have one.

He was a weak blitzer, too, the least effective in pressures per rush of the six defensive backs and inside linebackers with at least 10 rushes a year ago.

Granted, Hayward wouldn’t turn 27 until September, but the medical staff would remind Thompson of Hayward’s lean frame and the recurring hamstring problems that wrecked his 2013 season, the stress fracture in his foot that ruined his 2015 off-season and the concussion that he suffered in November.

Thompson might also have hearkened back to that dark day in Seattle when Hayward was burned twice late by Doug Baldwin for 55 yards in the NFC Championship Game that closed his 2014 season.

It would have been rather nice to see the Packers use the money that might have been allocated to Hayward for another veteran to help this season. But, no, the Packers sit about where they always sit, ready to roll over $8.713 million of salary-cap space (ninth most in the NFL) into next year.

Casey Hayward proved his point. The change of scenery probably rejuvenated him. He remains a capable player. Given the injuries, he would have helped the Packers this season.

Just don’t blame Ted Thompson for letting him go. It’s lonely at the top, and with the facts as they were in March his decision to move on was appropriate.

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