It could be Casey Hayward's time to shine for Packers

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Casey Hayward has waited his turn before, and each time -- in high school and in college -- it worked out for the best.

The same thing could be in store for the Green Bay Packers cornerback.

Three years into his NFL career, he is finally on the verge of becoming a full-time player.

And he has Tramon Williams to thank for that in more ways than one.

For it was the veteran Williams who helped groom the young Hayward for this. For three years, Hayward observed Williams' study habits and workout practices. And now it's Williams' departure, signing last week with the Cleveland Browns in free agency, that should give Hayward the opportunity to finally become a regular starter.

"I was telling one of my friends this the other day: When I was a freshman in high school, I had to wait my turn to be a starter," Hayward said during a telephone interview from his offseason home in Atlanta. "There were veteran guys in front of me, but my sophomore year my coach put me in there, and I was starting over a senior that had just led us to the playoffs the year before. So it's all about timing.

"I did it the same way in college. My first year, I didn't play much. They were just molding me to where I was able to be a starter. That's how it is I feel like now. It's just my fourth year coming up, and I'm barely scratching the surface of my potential. I feel like there's a lot of good things ahead of me. I feel like the more playing time I get, the more plays I'll make."

Hayward's play-making ability cannot be denied. In 2012, the second-round pick from Vanderbilt led all NFL rookies with six interceptions. He served as the nickel, or third, cornerback but also got the opportunity to start seven games at right cornerback while Sam Shields was out because of shin and ankle injuries.

Since then, he has played almost exclusively in the slot as either the nickel or dime defensive back. He was limited to just three games in 2013 because of hamstring injuries but last season played in every game and despite seeing the field on only 37.8 percent of the defensive snaps, he tied Williams for the team lead with three interceptions.

Yet the question remains: Can he go from being a part-time player who primarily covered slot receivers -- ProFootballFocus.com data showed that Hayward played 81.5 percent of his coverage snaps in the slot last season -- to a full-time starter on the outside, where Williams led the Packers' defense in snap counts (playing 1,134 of 1,218 snaps) last season?

"Of course," Hayward said confidently but not arrogantly. "I started seven games outside as a rookie, and if you look up those seven games, I was not targeted much. I'm not saying I can match everything I've done so far. The thing about me is just continuing to be better, not just with my body but mentally. Just trying to see things before they come. Tramon definitely helped me out with the ideal way to prepare and the way that he studied film. He was prepared before the game so that he knew what was coming. I definitely want to thank him for all the things he did for me to help me become a better pro."

Hayward's position coach, Joe Whitt, has long maintained that Hayward can perform as well on the outside as he has in the slot.

"Casey has played better than most people realize, and he deserves more reps than he has played," Whitt said late last season. "I'm pleased that he hasn't complained or done anything like that because he grades out so high every week, and I want to give him more snaps, but there's only so many to go around."

With Williams and Davon House -- another free-agent defection -- now gone, that should change.

"I'm just going to keep doing what I do," Hayward said. "My numbers don't lie about how I've played. I just keeping playing ball, keep doing what I do when my opportunities come, just keep knocking on that door. The coaches know what I can do. I'm in a great situation. I came into a great situation. I was led by some veterans when I first got here. Those guys helped me and showed me the ropes."