Second-year cornerback DJ Hayden looks bigger and stronger than he did last season, when he missed most of the offseason workouts, wasn’t permitted to participate in contact drills the first part of training camp, struggled in coverage once the season began and finished the season on the injured-reserve list.
In fairness, last year at this time Hayden was just getting back on the football field after he suffered a near-fatal injury at the University of Houston toward the end of his final collegiate season. On Tuesday, he was right in the middle of the Raiders first team practice.
“But now, I’m great, I’m feeling a whole lot better,” Hayden said. “I’ve been lifting, working out. I actually got a whole offseason in, so I’m ready for the season to start.”
Hayden missed even more time when than planned when he underwent a second surgery as a result of the ruptured vein he suffered at Houston. The second surgery was to remove scar tissue that bothered Hayden during practice.
“He’s light years ahead of where he was at this point last year,” coach Dennis Allen said Tuesday. “Not just from a physical standpoint, but really from a mental standpoint, too. He realizes now that everything’s going to be fine, he’s going to be OK, and now he can really focus on getting better as a football player.”
The hope is that Hayden develops well enough as a player to win one of the two starting spots, opposite Tarell Brown, with veteran Carlos Rogers covering the slot receiver.
“I like what I’ve seen out of DJ so far,” Allen said. “He still has a lot of things to learn, he’s still kind of a quasi-rookie out there, but I’m looking forward to his development and there are some good things in store for him.”
The Raiders selected Hayden in the first round of the 2013 draft. They did so in hopes Hayden would mature into a corner capable of hanging with the likes of Denver’s Demaryius Thomas and Kansas City’s Dwayne Bowe.
“There was a reason why we took him where we took him last year,” Allen said. “We feel great about the player and we’re excited to see how he can develop last year.”
Hayden said last season that he looked forward to having an offseason to lift weights, add muscle and get adequately prepared for the grind of an NFL season.
By all accounts, Hayden made significant progress in that regard. He said he has gained some weight — in the five to 10-pound range, he estimated.
“When you look at how the league has gone with a lot of these big physical receivers, it’s hard to play the position without that functional strength, both in your upper body and your lower body,” Allen said. “So, he’s got the athletic skill to play the position.
“That was one of the things that we talked about in the offseason, what he needed to do to get stronger. He’s done a great job this offseason of putting his body in a position to have success and he’s got to continue to do that throughout the rest of the offseason and all the way through training camp.”
Hayden is so confident in how far he has come since last season that he wouldn’t mind there being a game this Sunday.
“I feel like not only do I have something to prove but I feel like we all have something to prove because of our season last year,” Hayden said. “We definitely got to do way much now. We’re way better than that. I just can’t wait to get this season going.”
— Remember David Ausberry, the wide receiver turned tight end who entered training camp as the favorite to replace Brandon Myers as the Raiders starting tight end last season?
If you forgot about Ausberry, that’s understandable. He missed all of last season with a shoulder injury and became even more of a forgotten man with the emergence of rookie Mychal Rivera as a legitimate tight end.
Today, Ausberry was quite visible during practice, as he ran routes, caught passes, made moves to get free from defenders and continued his quest to work his way back up the depth chart.
Allen said he doesn’t have a depth chart right now, so there’s no telling where Ausberry fits in right now.
“It’s been good to have David back out here,” Allen said. “He was a guy that we had high hopes for last year and unfortunately got hurt in that first preseason game.
“He’s a guy that, again, he’s got talent, he’s got ability especially as a receiving threat. So, he’s a nice piece to the puzzle and hopefully he’ll continue to develop and hopefully he’ll stay healthy and we’ll be able to use him this year.”
— With the restrictions by the Raiders on what media are permitted to report from the practice field, through Tweets, pictures, videos and stories, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to provide the kind of information that has been a staple for years.
For instance, we can’t tell you how the Raiders lined up along the offensive line in practice today, which wide receivers worked with the first-team offense or if any players got injured.
We no longer are allowed to Tweet or report about practice once a certain time window has elapsed. Therefore, we will report in general terms best we can and work for greater access.
Then again, it might not mean much right now which players are playing where, given Allen said he intends to take looks at players at multiple positions.
“We’re gonna take a look at a lot of different people in a lot of different areas because we got a lot of new players on this football team,” Allen said. “So, as we get a better feel for these guys and we get a better opportunity to work with them, we’ll settle in more on positions as we move along.”
— Wide receiver Greg Little is another one of those players jettisoned by another team that is keen upon showing that he still can be a productive player in the NFL.
He had his moments during his three seasons with the Cleveland Browns, mostly as the No. 2 behind Josh Gordon. However, the Browns parted ways with Little earlier this offseason. The Raiders wasted little time placing a waiver claim on Little.
“Greg’s a guy that has a lot of talent,” Allen said. “He’s a big, physical receiver, he can run and there’s a lot of upside to Greg. A lot of times, you have guys that the initial situation that they’re in, they don’t necessarily flourish in that situation and they need a fresh start, a new start.
“We provide that opportunity for him. It’s a good marriage because we’re looking for some receivers who can step up and make plays for us. It will be a good opportunity for him.”
James Jones was brought in via free agency, to go with returners Denarius Moore, Rod Streater, Andre Holmes, Brice Butler and Juron Criner. Little has a chance to carve out some playing time on a receiving corps that is relatively young and inexperience and without a proven No. 1.