It didn’t attract much notice, but Washington signed CB D.J. Hayden to a future contract this week.
We have signed CB D.J. Hayden to a Reserve/Future contract pic.twitter.com/GjZDrTrjgh— Washington Football Team (@WashingtonNFL) January 19, 2022
If Hayden’s name rings a bell, it could be because he was a late-season addition to Washington’s practice squad last season, or it could be because he was the 12th overall player selected in the 2013 draft, going to the then-Oakland Raiders.
His career to date comprises 92 NFL games with 41 career starts and over 4,500 regular season snaps. Hayden has played both boundary corner and slot corner in his career, depending on circumstances.
Snap Count totals per PFF
Early in his career, he played primarily as a boundary corner, but in his 4th season with the Raiders he moved to the slot. When Oakland didn’t pick up his 5th year option, he went to the Lions on a one-year prove it deal; there the coaches played him at boundary corner almost exclusively.
After his year with the Lions, per Over the Cap, he signed a 3-year deal that eventually paid him $19.2m with the Jaguars, who moved him back to the slot as the replacement for Alvin Covin, who left the Jags that offseason in free agency. It’s fair to say that Jags fans were initially underwhelmed by Hayden’s signing, with the article announcing his signing on SB Nation’s Big Cat Country describing the defensive back as having been “a disappointment so far in his NFL career”.
Things had changed considerably by 2020, when another Jaguars fan site published an article whose title asked, “Is DJ Hayden on of the Top Slot Defenders in Football?” That article referenced Touchdown Wire writer Doug Farrar:
Hayden has been with the Jaguars for two seasons and has certainly exceeded expectations since arriving in Duval. After a disappointing start to his career in Oakland, Hayden has blossomed in the nickel cornerback role for the Jags.
Here’s what Farrar had to say about his fourth-ranked slot defender:
The Raiders selected Hayden in the first round of the 2013 draft, but injuries derailed what seemed to be a promising early career. After a stint with the Lions in 2017, Hayden signed a three-year, $18 million contract with the Jaguars, and though he’s still missed time with injuries of late, he’s also been a revelation in the slot even as Jacksonville has engineered the deconstruction of what was a truly great defense a couple years ago.
In 335 slot coverage snaps last season, Hayden allowed 24 catches on 38 targets for 195 yards, 110 yards after catch, no touchdowns, and an opponent passer rating of 76.1. He has the quickness and route awareness to track the game’s best receivers from the slot, and judging by his two sacks, seven total pressures, 18 stops, and five tackles for loss, he’s more than just a coverage guy.
Farrar is on the money with his analysis. Hayden has been a near-elite defender in the slot for the Jaguars. He has the versatility to cover slot receivers and tight ends, defend the run, and rush the passer. But he may not be long for the starting role in Jacksonville. Hayden is entering the last year of his contract, is 30 years old, and has missed seven games due to injury in the last two years. Generally speaking, his high level of play and low cost should be reasons to keep him around beyond 2020, but fourth-round pick Josiah Scott looms large as Hayden’s backup in the slot.
As it turned out, Hayden’s final season in Jacksonville in 2020 was not his best. He suffered a hamstring injury in Week 4. He was out for 6 weeks, and when he returned in Week 11, he reinjured the hamstring, and was put on IR, ending his season and his Jaguars career.
Last season, Hayden got a number of tryouts with teams, but, then 30 years old and coming off an injury riddled season, he didn’t manage to get a contract with any team. It’s possible that Hayden was simply looking for more money than anyone was willing to pay in last year’s cap-strapped environment.
Hayden didn’t join a team until mid-December, when Washington signed him to the practice squad around the time that COVID starting impacting the roster. Hayden was actually active for the Week 16 game against the Cowboys, and played 11 total snaps — 4 on defense, and 7 on special teams.
With the addition of Hayden this week, Washington now has 51 players under contract for 2022, and a bit more depth at the CB position.
I know that most Washington fans weren’t very impressed with Darryl Roberts this season, so any comparison between Hayden and Roberts is not likely to be taken very positively, but I see the two as being fairly similar in terms of experience and skills. I wouldn’t be surprised if the coaches see Hayden as a potential replacement for Roberts.
Hayden is not a superstar, but he is a very experienced player who has been both a starter and a backup in his 8-year career. Per PFF, Hayden has played 1,840 snaps as a boundary corner and 1,970 as a slot defender. He has also lined up as a free safety for a few snaps in nearly every season. He was a regular contributor to special teams for both the Raiders and the Lions. His one game played for Washington last season shows that he is still able and willing to play ST snaps.
And, as recently as the 2019 season, Hayden was considered to be among the best slot corners in the league.
Here are Hayden’s PFF grades for his two most recent healthy seasons, 2018 and 2019:
It appears that bad timing in the form of injury and COVID in 2020 derailed his career, but, after a month-long look at him at the end of last season, the Washington coaches saw enough that they offered him a contract to come back next season.
It can’t be ignored that, at a time when Washington’s roster was stretched to the breaking point in December and January, DJ Hayden only managed to get 11 game snaps in his month with the team; however, the 31-year-old Hayden has the opportunity in 2022 to spend OTAs and Training Camp impressing the coaches and reestablishing his career. Hayden will never live up to his draft position, but I’m sure that he’ll be hoping to use his positional flexibility and long NFL experience to earn a spot on the Washington defense as a backup corner able to play on the boundary, in the slot, and on special teams.