One underrated aspect to improving the Green Bay Packers defense is the return of cornerback Casey Hayward.
Hayward only played in three games last season due to a reoccurring hamstring injury, but he recorded six interceptions in his rookie year and finished third in the 2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. Hayward coming back at full strength would be huge for a defense in desperate need of playmakers.
From all the accounts that I read from day one of training camp Hayward was one of the stars of Saturday’s practice. Even though the pads were not on it was important to see that he got his speed and agility back. It certainly looked like he did on Saturday, as he had three deflections in team drills.
Hayward worked from the slot with the No. 1 defense and as an outside cornerback with the No. 2 defense, just as he had during his rookie year. He could easily be an outside starting corner for most teams, but the Packers have two really solid outside cornerbacks in Sam Shields and Tramon Williams. Plus, Hayward has looked most comfortable in the slot where his great instincts an ball skills can shine.
“Yeah, I thought Casey had a good day,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy. “He’s back. He’s so instinctive, his ball skills. You saw him jump off the spot a few times and make a play.”
The Packers are extremely deep at corner with Shields, Williams, Hayward, Davon House, Jarett Bush and Micah Hyde (if he plays any corner). It is such an important position in today’s pass happy NFL that you would figure they should be a solid defense with that group. However, due to awful play up the middle from their linebackers and safeties it has not been.
Poor scheme has also been a cause with defensive coordinator Dom Capers often deciding to play his corners five yards off receivers, even in short yardage distances. It does not make a ton of sense with the talent he has to work with at cornerback.
Hayward will try to replicate what Charles Woodson gave Capers from the slot. He was somebody who he could send on blitzes, trust in run support and be a big time turnover machine with interceptions and fumbles. Obviously, Hayward can not be expected to replicate the production of a potential future Hall of Fame player, but he can be a big difference for this defense.
“He’s definitely going to be a guy we need out there on the field,” Williams said. “He definitely has a nose for the ball and that’s what we’re looking to do. We’re looking to make plays and he’s going to be a playmaker for us.”
If Hayward has a season like he did in 2012 it could mean that this is Williams’ last season in Green Bay. He is 31 years old and in the last year of his contract. Corner is a tough position to age in if you start to lose any athleticism. However, if Williams plays like he did during the second half of last season it will be hard to cut ties with him even if Heyward plays well.
Hayward will be a player to watch this preseason and beyond. He is kind of the forgotten man, but that should change quickly if he can stay healthy for the 2014 season.