It wasn’t until their third NFL season before cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and running back Darren McFadden showed promises of reaching the potential envisioned when the Raiders selected them in the first round of the NFL draft.
So, perhaps, it’s not surprising that wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey finally is showing signs of developing into a legitimate NFL receiver.
Through seven games, he has career-highs in receptions (27) and yards (434) and has scored one touchdown. He is averaging a robust 16.1 yards per reception.
“I said before the year started, ‘It’s time,’ ” Raiders coach Hue Jackson said. “And he’s done that. He’s risen to the occasion. Twenty seven catches, over 400 yards. He’s doing well. He needs to continue to get better.”
The Raiders selected Heyward-Bey with the seventh pick of the 2009 NFL draft. He was tabbed ahead of the likes of Kenny Britt, Michael Crabtree, Percy Harvin, Mike Wallace, Jeremy Maclin, Hakeem Nicks, Austin Collie and Mohamed Massaquoi.
Heyward-Bey was the first wide receiver taken that year. It wasn’t long before the Raiders were criticized for whiffing on their selection of Heyward-Bey.
He struggled with his route running, getting open on a consistent basis and, most of all, catching the ball. Yet, the Raiders stuck by him in hopes he would find his comfort zone at some point.
“The light’s on,” Jackson said. “It’s been on. Darrius has always been a hard woorker. Just more opportunities coming his way. He’s making more plays, his confidence is up and he’s doing well.”
Another wide receiver from the 2009 class was Louis Murphy, who the Raiders selected in the fourth round out of Florida. Murphy led the Raiders wide receivers in receptions and yards each of the past two seasons, and he looked like the better receiver in every capacity.
Things changed when Jackson replaced Tom Cable as coach and offensive coordinator Al Saunders arrived. They broke down film of Heyward-Bey from the past two seasons and discovered that he had a some flaws that needed to be eliminated and the Raiders weren’t doing a good job of running the plays best suited for his talents.
To that end, Heyward-Bey has worked hard to catch the ball with his hands more often, as opposed to against his body, and not to leave his feet when he doesn’t have to. Also, Jackson is calling plays in which Heyward-Bey gets the ball in his hands closer to the line of scrimmage, where he is free to use his speed to make yards after the catch.
New quarterback Carson Palmer has been around Heyward-Bey for less than two weeks. He completed a pass to Heyward-Bey on his first down with the Raiders. Palmer said he likes what he has seen from Heyward-Bey so far.
“Good timing. He’s been working really hard,” Palmer said. “Nobody had a good game on Sunday. I’ve only been around him during practice. He works really hard. He’s obviously fast. He can be a complete receiver. He just needs to continue to work and his confidence needs to continue to grow. The only way your confidence grows is by doing things on game day and making plays, and he’ll do that for us.”
Through it all, Heyward-Bey has worked hard, done everything asked of him and found ways to help out, even if it meant blocking for the running backs and other receivers.
He said he doesn’t notice the quarterbacks having anymore trust in him now than they did the past two seasons. His heightened production this season owes to things coming together.
“They’ve got trust in all of us, to be honest,” Heyward-Bey said. “We do a great job in practice, being where we need to be and that carries over in to the game. So, as long as they throw it, we’re going to try and catch it.”
When the Raiders drafted Heyward-Bey, they envisioned a game-changing receiver. It remains to be seen whether he can progress into that kind of player. Yet, there now is hope, where before there wasn’t much.
As it turns out, the most consistent receiver out of the 2009 draft has been Wallace.
Wallace has 36 catches for 730 yards (20.3-yard average) and five touchdowns in seven games this season. He had 1,257 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns last season.
Overall, Wallace has caught 135 passes for 2,743 yards (20.3 avg.) and 21 touchdowns in 39 games — 27 starts. By comparison, Heyward-Bey has caught 62 passes for 924 yards (14.9) and three touchdowns in 32 games — 31 starts.
It’s not likely that Heyward-Bey will reach Wallace’s level, but the Raiders have to be happy with where Heyward-Bey is at right now based on the meager return they received the past two seasons.
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