Green Bay Packers beat writer Paul Imig will be analyzing the 25 most important players to the Packers’ success in the 2013 season. Check back each day to see the latest player on the list.
Note: This is not a list of the team’s 25 best players or a series about past success, but rather which of them means the most to how Green Bay will fare this year. Criteria such as depth at that player’s position, general expectations and overall importance of that player having a good season are all highly considered.
NO. 20 — CASEY HAYWARD, CORNERBACK
AGE / EXPERIENCE
23 (turns 24 in September) / Second NFL season
WHY HE’S NO. 20
If this was a list of the best Packers players, Hayward would be much higher, likely even in the top 10. Hayward is coming off a very impressive season in which he was third in the Rookie of the Year voting (and arguably should have won it) after finishing fifth in the NFL in interceptions. The analysis at ProFootballFocus.com ranked Hayward as the third-best cornerback in the entire league in 2012.
With performances that good, Hayward is clearly a star — or at least a star in the making. However, he’s No. 20 in this series because cornerback is the deepest and most talented position on Green Bay’s roster. Hayward is going to have to perform at a high level in training camp just to win a starting job. With the exception of about five NFL teams, Hayward would practically have a guarantee to be a starter. The Packers, though, are one of those five teams.
EXPECTATIONS FOR 2013
Hayward’s rookie season far exceeded what Green Bay expected to get out of the 62nd overall pick in the 2012 draft. Expecting Hayward to be that good again or to show drastic improvement in Year 2 of his career is unrealistic. Even if his 2012 season was as good as he’ll ever be in the NFL, the Packers could still then count on Hayward to be one of the league’s better cornerbacks for many years to come. It can’t be overstated just how good Hayward was last season.
If the expectation on Hayward in 2013 is to match what he did as a rookie, that would mean that anything less than being in the NFL’s top five in interceptions would be a disappointment. That’s obviously a lot to ask from a player who’s still in the early stages of his career.
Despite the heavy competition, it’s reasonable to expect Hayward to win a starting job in 2013. Hayward believes he’s ready to be an every-down starting outside cornerback, as he stated in an interview with FOXSportsWisconsin.com in April. He could very well be right in his own personal assessment, but Hayward is definitely going to be expected to be a permanent fixture in the slot.
Hayward only started seven games last season and that was mainly a result of Sam Shields’ mid-season injury and Davon House’s preseason injury. If Hayward starts even 12 games this upcoming season, it’s possible that he intercepts at least five passes again. But, if Hayward develops a reputation as a player that quarterbacks don’t want to go after, his interception total could be lower. If Hayward reaches that level of respect from opposing offenses, he’d be doing more for Green Bay’s defense than any one interception could.
If Hayward has another season as good as his first in the NFL, expectations for him in 2014 will skyrocket. For now, he’s a young player with a ton of talent who will be pushed by a deep group of cornerbacks to even get on the field.
WHAT WOULD THEY DO WITHOUT HIM?
An average season from Hayward wouldn’t be a huge setback to the Packers’ defense. Not because Hayward isn’t important and that he couldn’t potentially make a huge impact, but because Green Bay is loaded at cornerback.
Tramon Williams is the veteran and has started all but one game over the past three seasons. That one game he didn’t start was due to injury. He’s regressed since a bad shoulder injury early in the 2011 season, but he’s still a starter until someone takes that spot from him. Shields, like Williams, is another former undrafted pickup who’s turned into a starting-caliber player. Shields started eight games in 2012 and played very well all year when healthy. He’s now looking to earn a high-paying contract from the Packers and knows it will require a good season to get it. House was so productive in training camp last season that he was beginning to cement himself near the top of the depth chart. Then, a Week 1 preseason shoulder injury derailed House’s chances. Now healthy, House will have an opportunity to pick up where he left off a year ago.
That leaves Hayward, who could be by far the best player in Green Bay’s cornerback group. It’s not far-fetched to believe Hayward could be a multiple-time Pro Bowl player. But overtaking Williams, Shields and House in 2013 won’t be easy. This will be the best position battle in training camp and it will be interesting to see if Hayward can emerge on top.