Houston cornerback DJ Hayden has been getting a lot of hype in the past two weeks. No one talked about him a few months ago, and now everyone's coming out of the wood works supporting this guy. That's always suspicious, and why is this happening now? Is he really one of the best cornerbacks in the draft? Mike Mayock thinks so, but that's just one guy.
Well, now my favorite analyst thinks so too. Greg Cosell appeared on the Yahoo! Shutdown Corner podcast today, and he was raving about Hayden. "On film, to me, he was the best cornerback in the draft," Cosell said. "He had the naturally quickest feet of any corner in the draft. His backpedal was the most fluent. His balance and body was absolutely remarkable. He was a sudden mover, he was competitive, he was challenging, he played the run. To me he was the most physically gifted corner in this draft class."
That's great praise from Cosell, who seems high on this entire class of cornerbacks anyway, for varying reasons. One of the trade-offs teams have to think about is size versus lateral agility, and that plays into the rise of cornerbacks like Xavier Rhodes and Johnthan Banks. They show some stiffness in their backpedal and their transition, but they excel in pressing receivers at the line and covering routes outside the numbers. They just don't have the ability to move laterally and quickly enough to be true shutdown cornerbacks, as they're limited in certain ways.
But Hayden has none of those limitations. He has the ability play press coverage, although he plays more of a mirroring style than a physically disruptive style. That's not a problem: plenty of NFL cornerbacks do that, like Champ Bailey and Darrelle Revis. Hayden has the size to hang with bigger receivers, although he's not huge at 5'11", 191 lbs. "When he played press-man he was right in the hip of the receiver", Cosell noted.
Still, he didn't line up against great receivers and some poor quarterback play made him look a little better than he may have been. Cosell doesn't think that's an issue, though, because he saw Hayden go up against a high level receiver against Louisiana Tech. "Quinton Patton was irrelevant in the game. Louisiana Tech must have run 100 games and Quinton Patton must have caught three balls, he was irrelevant. Hayden matched up to him the whole game. "
Why is Hayden emerging now? One theory is that he was medically cleared after suffering a serious, life-threatening but unique injury in the middle of last season. WIth no injury concerns, he's shooting up draft boards. The other theory is that coaches are getting involved in the draft process, and they value him more than scouts do. I don't see how that could be true, though, because Hayden's talent jumps off the tape and should be obvious to both scouts and coaches.
Check out this video courtesy of the excellent Draft Breakdown.
Pay special attention to Hayden's transition from a backpedal, and then compare that explosive movement to Dee Milliner. To me, the difference is jarring. Hayden's explosive athleticism jumps off the screen, and that's not something you can teach. He has the physicality in the run game you crave, the speed to recover when he does get beat, the skills to mirror receivers and most importantly the special athletic traits a shutdown cornerback must have.
He has similar athletic traits to players like Champ Bailey and yes, Darrelle Revis. That's not really something I can say of any other player in this draft. Note that I'm not saying he's as good as Bailey or Revis: no cornerback coming out of college is, and almost all rookie cornerbacks struggle. Hayden has plenty of questions to answer, too. But he does have the athletic ability that suggests he could eventually develop into a real shutdown cornerback.
Hayden showed a penchant for getting beat on a double move at times, and you won't see him play a snap of press coverage in that game -- although he did do that in the other games Draft Breakdown posted. Note: that's not the physical, jam and disrupt press coverage but a mirror press coverage similar to what Revis and Bailey play. Both are viable techniques in the NFL.
But if you ask me which cornerback in this draft can transition into a true shutdown cornerback, D.J. Hayden is the only real answer. No other cornerback has his athletic traits, his smooth backpedal, or his explosive transition out of that backpedal. Milliner isn't as explosive, and the tall cornerbacks like Xavier Rhodes and Johnthan Banks are too stiff to be as versatile as Hayden.
I like Dee Milliner. I like Xavier Rhodes. There are a lot of cornerbacks I like as second-round picks, too. But based on the games I've seen and the evaluation of better evaluators like Greg Cosell and Mike Mayock, I would absolutely take D.J. Hayden with the thirteenth overall pick -- even if Dee Milliner was available.