GREEN BAY, Wis. — Casey Hayward believes he’s ready to be a starting outside cornerback for the Green Bay Packers next season. After a rookie year that included six interceptions, Hayward sees no reason he shouldn’t be able to accomplish that goal.
“I want to start outside,” Hayward told FOXSportsWisconsin.com. “I feel like I can be an outside guy now full-time.”
When cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt concluded his season-ending exit interview with Hayward in January, the message was sent loud and clear that both starting spots will be up for grabs when players report back for training camp this summer.
“It’ll be an open competition, and I’ll be ready for it,” said Hayward, a 2012 second-round pick. “I’ll prove that I can play outside now and not just the slot.”
Hayward spent the majority of his time as the slot cornerback in the nickel package last season, but he also started seven games outside. Often, though, even when Hayward started on the outside, he still slid inside to the slot position on many snaps.
Four of Hayward’s six interceptions came when lined up outside.
“I handled my own,” Hayward said of playing outside. “I feel like it will help me out in the long run because I can play different positions. The coaches know I can do that.”
Coach Mike McCarthy certainly noticed.
“Casey Hayward played outstanding as a rookie,” McCarthy said in late February at the Scouting Combine.
Cornerback is one of Green Bay’s deepest, most talented positions. Tramon Williams, 30, is the veteran leader of the group and has started all but one game for the Packers over the past three seasons. Sam Shields, 25, is coming off a very good 2012 season in which he started eight of the 10 games he was healthy. Davon House, 23, was arguably Green Bay’s best cornerback in training camp before a preseason shoulder injury sidelined him for more than two months.
“I’m up for the challenge,” Hayward said. “That’s what this league is about; it’s about challenging each other. We know what kind of corners we have. We have four corners who can go out there and start. The competition within ourselves, within the Packers, will be great.
“It’s going to be an interesting competition to see who will be starting on the outside. If I don’t start on the outside, I’m going to lock up my inside responsibilities, but I do want to start outside.”
Hayward’s rookie season began with his playing only three total snaps in a Week 1 home loss to the San Francisco 49ers. At that time, Jarrett Bush was starting at cornerback opposite Williams. Hayward’s snap count increased over the following five games, and by Week 7, he was on the field for nearly every play for the next two months (with the exception of Week 12, in which House was given the starting job).
“After Week 1, my coach (Whitt) called me in his office and said, ‘We’re going to give you a chance to play some nickel,'” Hayward recalled. “He (Whitt) gradually wanted to put me in there and not throw me out into the wolves. I felt he did a great job of that, which gave me some confidence about my game. He knew the type of player I was, he had a plan and his plan worked.”
However, as the Packers approached the playoffs, Hayward’s playing time was down again. In the final five games (postseason included), Hayward was on the field for only 50.4 percent of the defensive snaps.
One reason for that, Hayward explained, was a left hamstring injury that had been bothering him — and is still lingering nearly three months after the season ended.
“My leg was hurting toward the end of the year,” Hayward said. “It wasn’t too bad, but it’s the type of hamstring thing that has to rest. I haven’t been working out super, super hard because I’m trying to rest my legs. I’m not doing too much running right now, but I’m doing enough.”
Despite some inconsistencies in how often Green Bay’s defense used him, Hayward finished third in the race for the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Though Hayward was very complimentary of the winner, Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, the Vanderbilt alumnus wouldn’t have minded a recount in the voting.
“I think I got overlooked just a tad,” Hayward said. “Maybe if I would’ve had two sacks, that would’ve helped pad my stats a little bit. Or a touchdown; that would’ve pushed me to win the award. But those guys (Kuechly and second-place finisher Bobby Wagner) had spectacular years, as well.”
With Hayward spending this offseason at Vanderbilt to finish his final 13 credits to graduate with his degree in sociology, he looks back at his rookie season in the NFL as a success.
“I definitely met my expectations,” Hayward said. “I wanted to come in and play as a rookie, which I did, and I was able to help my team win. You can’t ask for anything better than that.
“Hopefully I’m just scratching the surface of my potential and my career keeps blossoming.”
If Hayward continues to improve at the rate he did last season, his goal of being an every-down starting outside cornerback should soon be a reality.