Heyward-Bey looks for more improvement

Darrius Heyward-Bey has been steadily improving after two disappointing seasons. Kirby Lee/US Presswire

When Carson Palmer suddenly became an Oakland Raider in October, the first teammate he met was receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey.

Heyward-Bey eagerly offered to play catch with his new quarterback. Although he was known in his first two NFL seasons for not living up to his lofty draft status, he made a terrific first impression on Palmer.

"I didn’t know much about him, being in Cincinnati," Palmer recently said of Heyward-Bey. "I knew he was fast, and I knew he didn't catch a lot of balls in Maryland, and I knew he didn't catch a lot of balls in his first couple of years in the NFL. But I didn't think badly of him. Right away, I felt like he was a guy who could make a lot of plays. He's made a lot of plays for me, so I like him."

There is no doubt Heyward-Bey had changed. He was one of the most improved in the NFL in 2011 as he made sudden and dramatic strides, catching 64 passes for 975 yards in 2011. In the first 26 games of his career, Heyward-Bey caught 35 passes.

There were major concerns that Heyward-Bey would never develop into a reliable NFL player, let alone somebody worth the No. 7 overall pick. The same trouble Heyward-Bey had holding onto the ball in college followed him into the NFL. Most teams had Heyward-Bey, who is lightning fast, rated as a low first-round pick. Many people questioned the late Al Davis for making Heyward-Bey a top-10 pick.

Although Heyward-Bey may never live up to his draft status, he has showed he belongs in the NFL. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. doesn't think the 2011 season was a fluke and expects more of the same.

"I do think he is a legitimate NFL starter," Williamson said. "He has obviously put time and effort into his routes and hands to improve at his weak areas."

Can Heyward-Bey continue to make strides in his fourth NFL season? He will surely be one of Palmer's top targets Monday night when the Raiders open the season on ESPN against visiting San Diego. Fellow starter Denarius Moore (hamstring) and No. 3 receiver Jacoby Ford (foot) have been dealing with injuries and could be limited, if they play at all. Expect Heyward-Bey to be Palmer's go-to receiver, especially with untested tight ends.

The wideout also appears to be a strong fit for the West Coast offense of new coordinator Greg Knapp. Heyward-Bey has proved to be most effective in shorter routes, which allow him to use his speed for yards-after-the catch.

Palmer said the receiver will excel in the new scheme because of his work ethic. According to Palmer, every time he turns around, he sees Heyward-Bey working on the ball machine, catching ball after ball.

"A lot of times, high picks who struggle early can go in the tank and never come out of it," Palmer said, "especially at receiver, which can be a high-bust position. But Darrius just kept working, and he keeps getting better. That's a credit to him."

Heyward-Bey acknowledges his breakout season was a relief. He said he never lost any confidence, but to see his hard work pay off with consistent success was important.

"I showed I can be dominant and I can make some plays," he said. "My thinking is to improve every day and do whatever I can to get better, but it did feel good to go out and do it last year. Now I have to do it again."

New Oakland coach Dennis Allen knows firsthand about the improvement Heyward-Bey made in 2011. Allen was the defensive coordinator of AFC West rival Denver. Allen said creating a game plan for Heyward-Bey changed between the time the Broncos faced him in Week 1 and when they faced Oakland later in the season.

"We could see the change," Allen said. "In that first game, he was kind of known as a speed guy who didn't have a lot of catches in his first two seasons, but when we faced him later, he was really improved. He can hurt you in several areas, and we think he can do a lot of things in this offense."