The great thing about the NFL is that there are so many positions that every year, there is almost always at least one player who has a breakout year on every team, no matter how good or bad the team is. This is one part in a 32 part segment detailing one potential breakout player for the 2013 NFL season on each NFL team. For the Green Bay Packers, that player is cornerback Casey Hayward.
Casey Hayward was my #1 sleeper prospect for the 2012 NFL Draft class and earned a first round grade as a cornerback, as I compared him to Devin McCourty. Hayward lacked elite size and speed, but always impressed on tape and put up big time production. In his final two years at Vanderbilt, he had 13 interceptions and 21 pass deflections, playing most of his games against big time SEC competition. He rarely allowed completions, had a big time 6 deflection game against an Arkansas passing offense that was one of the best of the country, and even solo tackled Trent Richardson for a loss or no gain twice in their matchup against Alabama.
When the Packers moved up to get Casey Hayward in the 2nd round in 2012, it gave me some affirmation. While Hayward was not expected to go before the 3rd round, the Packers were known for being one of the best drafting teams in the league. They also rarely move up for guys, so when they do, it’s something that should catch your eye. It’s very, very possible that they too had a 1st round grade on Hayward.
The way he played as a rookie was even better than anyone, including even the Packers, could have expected. He did this largely under the radar, as he was the Packers’ nickel cornerback, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have an important role. Because the Packers are in their sub packages so frequently, Hayward played on 703 of the Packers’ 1118 regular season defensive snaps, around 63%. He also made 7 starts when injuries struck.
Despite not being a full-time starter, only three players (Tarell Brown, Antoine Winfield, Cortland Finnegan) played more pass snaps and didn’t surrender a touchdown and Hayward’s interception total, 6, was double the high of anyone in that group. He also got his hands on 12 more balls, deflecting them, a number that was tied for the most among players who didn’t surrender a touchdown and was tied for 6th overall in the NFL. His 6 interceptions, meanwhile, were 4th in the NFL.
As you can imagine, when a player allows 0 touchdowns and picks off 6 passes, his QB rating against must be pretty low. That was exactly the case with Hayward. His 31.1 QB rating allowed was not only the best in the league among those eligible, but among players ineligible, only Darrelle Revis played more than 29 snaps and allowed a lower QB rating and he only played 93. Only Richard Sherman played more snaps than him and had a QB rating that even rivaled his and his was 10 points higher at 41.1.
It wasn’t just a great touchdown to interception ratio powering that low QB rating. Hayward allowed 33 completions all year, on 74 attempts, a 44.6% completion percentage. He surrendered just 456 yards, 6.2 YPA. He also was not penalized all year and played the run well, as well. He ranked 4th among eligible cornerbacks in run stop % and missed just 3 tackles all season. For all his efforts, he was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked cornerback and was my choice for this year’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.
This year, he will compete with Sam Shields and Tramon Williams for a starting job. While Shields and Williams are both fine players, I don’t see how the Packers can keep Hayward from a starting role in his 2nd year in the league. He’ll probably line up outside in base packages and move to the slot in 3-cornerback sets. If he plays in 2013 as a starter anywhere near the way he did as a rookie, he’ll deserve to be an easy Pro-Bowl selection.