Latest in a series of posts on NFC North rookies who have generated buzz. (Full series here.)
Seasoned observers take notice when a team trades up in the draft. It's a clear signal of particular affinity for a targeted player, making it more than reasonable to project both immediate and long-term plans.
So it goes for the April trade that secured Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward for the Green Bay Packers at the bottom of the second round (No. 62 overall). You figured it would only be a matter of time before Hayward got a chance to earn significant playing time, and it appears that injuries and a solid training-camp performance have generated that opportunity already.
Hayward worked with the Packers' first-team defense over the weekend after injuries sidelined Davon House (shoulder) and Sam Shields (elbow). Jarrett Bush, who opened camp as a first-team cornerback, apparently has been leapfrogged on the depth chart. It's easy to view Hayward's ascendance as a function of injuries, but the Packers' eagerness to draft him suggests he could win the permanent job outright by the end of the preseason.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy told reporters that Hayward got off to a "good start" in the Packers' preseason opener against the San Diego Chargers, and Hayward is thrilled to have countered what he said were pre-draft assessments of limited ability.
"Not too many people can come in and just start, especially at the corner spot," Hayward said, via Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com. "I feel I can start in this league. A lot of people said I couldn't be a starter -- [that] I'm more of a nickel person. I just want to come in and prove them wrong. They drafted me high, and when they draft you that high, they've got expectations for you, and I just want to live up to them. … It's my opportunity and I'm going to try to make the best of it."
You probably noticed the Chargers target Hayward last Thursday on a 36-yard pass play to receiver Vincent Brown. But when you watch the replay, you see Hayward do a nice job of recovering after biting on a double move. He caught up to Brown and got his hand near the ball as it dropped, increasing the difficulty of Brown's reception. It was an exceptional catch given Hayward's recovery. (Video here courtesy NFL.com.)
Regardless, Hayward's ascendance is of particular interest from an NFC North perspective. With elite quarterback play in nearly every locale, Hayward is one of three rookie defensive backs who appear on track for starting jobs. We've discussed the status of Detroit Lions cornerback Bill Bentley, and it appears the Minnesota Vikings are on the verge of elevating safety Harrison Smith as well.
If Hayward maintains this role, the Packers would have found immediate and prominent roles for each of their top three draft picks. First-rounder Nick Perry appears locked in at outside linebacker, and second-rounder Jerel Worthy is working as one of two tackles in the Packers' nickel defense, a scheme they ran last season almost 70 percent of the time.
Young and new players doesn't always translate into better. But given the task facing defenses in this division, there is nothing to be lost by exhausting every possibility. In Green Bay, the Packers hope they have a new, young player in Hayward who makes them better.