Get to know: D.J. Hayden

#25 Derek Sherrard “D.J” Hayden, Jr.

Born: Houston, Texas (1990)

College: Navarro College, University of Houston

2013 First Round Draft Pick (12th Overall)

Cornerback

 Expected Position: Starting Nickel Cornerback

 

The Jacksonville Jaguars defense is full of character from the defensive line to the secondary. We can all remember the footage of Malik Jackson calling out Jurrell Casey after the AFC Divisional Round shoot-out, or Jalen Ramsey stating the Jaguars are “going to the Super Bowl, and we are going to win that” … game. That kind of “swagger” comes from a team that not only can talk the talk, but can also walk the walk. As we have seen recently, this team does not mind making bold predictions or reminding the rest of the NFL that this is not the same Jacksonville Jaguars team of the recent past. Outside analysts say that this is a new Jaguars team, but in reality, this is a team that is just going back to its roots.

People tend to think of the typical secondary unit being made up of four positions: the two outside corners and two safeties. But last year, the Jaguars adopted a secondary style that required a strong nickel cornerback. With two shutdown corners on the outside, Offenses had to scheme plays that would involve a slot receiver or receivers coming across the middle. Because of this, the core secondary unit grew to five positions; and from here, the “Jackson 5” were reunited.

Aaron Colvin made an impact last year with 5 pass deflections, 1 fumble recovery, and 37 solo tackles during the regular season. One of his best games came during the Week 5 game against the Steelers where he racked up 10 tackles. During the playoffs he added 2 more solo tackles, 1 pass deflection, and 1 interception. These stats may not jump off the page, but it’s hard to argue that he did not make a difference in the passing game. With Colvin heading to the Houston Texans during the offseason with a 4-year deal worth $34 million, the Jaguars were looking for someone to fill this void. This is where Derek Sherrard “D.J.” Hayden, Jr. comes in.

D.J. was born in Houston, Texas but played high-school football in Missouri City, Texas for the Elkins High School Knights. He started his collegiate career at a junior college program in Corsicana, Texas. In his freshman year with the Navarro College Bulldogs, he played in 10 games and recorded 23 tackles and 1 tackle for a loss. In his second year, he played in all 11 games with 35 tackles, 6 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions, returning 1 for a touchdown. He was ranked No. 41 on Rivals.com Top-50 junior college players and was integral to leading the Bulldogs to the 2010 NJCAA National Championship.

Looking at some of his highlights, Hayden can be seen consistently making plays on the football while the ball is in the air. He’s quick at making that first move and positioning himself to make a pass deflection or take an angle to tackle the runner. At the end of his second year, he was a 3-Star prospect that ranked as the 65th best player in the nation, the 9th best cornerback, and the 6th best player in Texas. He received interest from the Oklahoma State Cowboys and the Texas A&M Aggies, but ultimately accepted an offer from the University of Houston Cougars.

Embed from Getty Images

During his first season with the Cougars in 2011, he played in 13 games and had 66 tackles, 11 pass deflections, 2 interceptions (returning one for a touchdown), 8 tackles for a loss, 5 forced fumbles, and 1 sack. Houston finished the season with a record of 12-1 after losing in the Conference USA Championship. This earned them a spot in the TicketCity Bowl where the #19 Cougars defeated the #23 Penn State Nittany Lions 30-14. Hayden was named the 2011 Conference USA Defensive Newcomer of the Year and made the 2011 Second Team All-Conference USA.

Going into his senior year, he was voted almost unanimously to be a team-captain and played in 9 games with 61 tackles, 8 pass deflections, 4 interceptions (returning two for touchdowns), 3 tackles for loss, and 1 forced fumble. The highlights show a cornerback that has a knack for the ball and who looked to make a play each time the ball was thrown into his area. Not only was he great in coverage, but Hayden also showed outstanding closing speed and the ability to chase down a receiver after the catch. With respect to his strength, Hayden displayed the aptitude to set his shoulders and lay a solid tackle on the opponent player.

The Cougars would finish the season with a record of 5-7 and not qualify for a bowl game that year. More unfortunately, Hayden would not finish the season on the field with his team.

It was a normal day at practice on November 6th, 2012. The team was running 11-on-11 drills and the receiver ran a post pattern. The ball was slightly under-thrown and the opposing outside cornerback started to make a break for the ball. Meanwhile, Hayden was trailing the receiver from behind and was also looking to undercut the route. As the corner jumped for the ball, he brought his left knee up and collided directly with Hayden’s chest. The whole play lasted less than five seconds, but this would turn into a life-altering collision.

Hayden originally thought he just had the wind knocked out of him, but then he realized he lost part of his mobility. The athletic trainer had Hayden taken off the field with a cart, and while he was in the locker room, Hayden noticed that he was losing vision in his left eye. A team medical assistant called 911 and Hayden was taken to the Memorial Hermann Texas Trauma Institute. An ultrasound showed that Hayden had internal bleeding and it was originally thought to be coming from the spleen or liver.

While in surgery, the medical team found the blood was coming from higher in the chest. The collision had caused a tear in the inferior vena cava, the main blood vessel. The surgery lasted two-and-a-half hours and Hayden received the equivalent of three full-body blood transfusions. This type of injury is typically seen in high-speed vehicle accidents, and the fatality rate is close to 95%. The surgery was a success and Hayden awoke in the ICU the next day with an 18-inch scar that ran down the middle of his chest. If you thought this would stop Hayden from thinking about getting back on the football field, then you would be wrong.

Hayden still earned a spot in the 2012 First-Team All-Conference USA and graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in Sociology. Four months after the injury, he participated in Houston’s Pro Day and stood out with a 4.33-second 40-yard dash. He was invited to the 2013 NFL Combine but was unable to participate in the physical drills as he was still recovering from surgery. In the activities he did participate in, Hayden still displayed the athleticism and quickness that made him stand out in the past. He posted a 10.0-foot broad jump, a 33.5-inch vertical jump, a 1.57-second 10-yard split, a 2.60-second 20-yard split, and a 4.53-second 40-yard dash in his first attempt. Unfortunately, he injured his hamstring on his second attempt of the 40-yard dash and was not able to finish the rest of the drills.

Going into the 2013 NFL Draft at 5’ 11” and 190 pounds, D.J. Hayden was listed on NFL.com with a grade of 85.1. This put him in the range of players that were expected to become immediate starters and described to be “an impact player with the ability/intangibles to become a Pro Bowl player.” He was projected to be a 1st or 2nd Round pick and was considered one of the top 10 cornerbacks by multiple analysts.

Hayden did not have to wait long on Day 1 of the Draft, as he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders with the 12th Overall pick; the second cornerback taken off the board. He made history for the University of Houston by becoming the highest selected defensive player from the program since 1977. Oakland had traded down from the 3rd Overall spot with the Miami Dolphins to pick up a 2nd Round pick but reports from Oakland said they had been interested in selecting D.J. Hayden with their original 3rd Overall pick.

Embed from Getty Images

The Oakland Raiders officially signed Hayden in late July 2013 to a four-year, fully guaranteed $10.32 million contract with a signing bonus of $5.88 million. At the beginning of the 2013 season, he was listed as the 3rd cornerback on the depth chart. He played in 8 games, with 2 starts, and compiled 25 tackles, 2 pass deflections, 1 interception, and 1 forced fumble before being placed on the Injured Reserve List in late November after undergoing sports hernia surgery.

The injury bug followed Hayden into his Sophomore season as he was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform List for the first 6 games due to a recurring foot injury. He played out the last 10 games of the 2014 season, with 8 starts, and finished with 47 tackles, 10 pass deflections, and 1 interception.

Fans started to rethink Hayden’s first round status after his first two seasons with the Raiders and expectations were set high for him going into the 2015 NFL Season. He worked hard and competed with his fellow teammates throughout the Raider’s training camp to enter the season as one of the starting cornerbacks. This would turn into Hayden’s best season in the NFL as he played in all 16 games, with 13 starts, and racked up 70 tackles (64 solo), 1 sack, 8 pass deflections, 1 interception, and 1 forced fumble. During an interview in November of 2016, Hayden talked about the criticism he had received from fans over the past few seasons and he said, “When I was younger, it used to get to me, but now I just let it go.”

Even though he was coming off his best season with the Raiders, the organization decided not to pick up Hayden’s fifth-year option. He started the season as the 4th cornerback listed on Oakland’s depth chart. He played in 11 games, with 2 starts, and collected 37 tackles, 6 pass deflections, and 1 forced fumble before being listed on the Injury Reserve List for a second time, this time due to a hamstring injury.

With Oakland not picking up Hayden’s contact option, he entered the free agency market. He was signed by the Detroit Lions on March 10th, 2017 to a 1-year $3.75 million contract, with $2.25 million guaranteed, and a $1 million signing bonus. He entered the 2017 season as the 3rd cornerback listed on the Lions depth chart and played in 16 games, with 1 start, and gathered 44 tackles, 9 pass deflections, 0.5 sack, and 2 fumble recoveries (taking one for a touchdown).

Detroit did not make future plans with Hayden after the 2017 season and once again he became a free agent.

That brings us to this past off-season. The Jaguars signed D.J. Hayden in mid-March to a three-year contract worth $19 million, with $9.5 million guaranteed. He was an active participant in the voluntary OTA’s in late May and early June. After practice on Day 9, Perry Fewell, the Jaguars Defensive Back Coach, spoke highly of Hayden saying that, “Initially it was a rough start, because he didn’t know the defense, but he grew everyday”.

Embed from Getty Images

This is a player that has been on quite the football journey. He wasn’t recruited by a major school out of high school and had to earn an offer after two years in a junior college program. He was at his collegiate peak and making a name for himself in his senior year before an unforeseen injury almost took his life. He was not able to fully participate in the NFL Combine due to injuries but was still drafted in the Top 15 of his 2013 Draft Class. He had to fight for the starting cornerback spot each season while being injured at some point in three of his past five seasons. He was given a one-year prove-it-deal by a new team after the team that originally drafted him decided not to pick up his fifth-year option. And now, he has touched down in Duval County.

D.J. Hayden is a player that will fit right in with the Jaguars defense. This unit is full of players that know they have something special to bring to the locker room and are working day-and-night to showcase their talent to the rest of the League. This Jaguars starting defense has the full range of NFL Draft picks, from undrafted to top five overall. There is one main thing they all have in common: they all have something to prove. Each player wants to prove why they deserve the respect of being a part of not only one of the best defensive units in the NFL today, but arguably one of the best defensive units that we have seen in the past few decades.