Casey Hayward's impressive coverage skills make him a piece to build around defensively.
By PAUL IMIGFS Wisconsin
Today is the 20th day of FOX Sports Wisconsin Packers writer Paul Imig's offseason evaluations of every player on Green Bay's roster. Click here for all of Paul's previous evaluations and come back every day through mid-March for Paul's in-depth film and statistical analysis. Coming up soon:
Season stats: 18 games (16 regular season, two postseason); 57 tackles, four missed tackles, six interceptions, 81 interception yards, 21 passes defensed, one forced fumble, zero sacks; thrown at 76 times while allowing 33 receptions (43.4 completion percentage)
Best game: Week 6 win at Houston (two interceptions, 37 interception yards, three passes defensed, thrown at four times while allowing zero receptions; played 31 of 73 snaps; 3.6 PFF rating)
Worst game: Week 9 win over Arizona (seven tackles, one missed tackle, two passes defensed, thrown at 11 times while allowing seven receptions; played 64 of 67 snaps; minus-1.1 PFF rating)
ProFootballFocus.com season rating: 21.3 (second-best on Packers defense; fourth-best in entire NFL among cornerbacks; best in the entire NFL in coverage as a slot cornerback)
Expectations at the start of the season: Medium
Expectations were ... Exceeded
Looking live: The Packers moved up in the draft to select Hayward late in the second round in 2012. At the time, Green Bay had decent depth at cornerback already, especially considering Charles Woodson had yet to officially be moved from his outside cornerback role. Even after Woodson made the permanent switch to a safety-slot cornerback hybrid position, the Packers had plans to use Tramon Williams on one side, along with either Sam Shields, Jarrett Bush or Davon House as the other starter outside. That indicated right away that Hayward had his work cut out for him in training camp just to get any snaps with the first unit. Through the final preseason game, Hayward had yet to do anything to establish himself. That proved to be true when he only played three snaps in Week 1. Once defensive coordinator Dom Capers got a bit more comfortable with him, Hayward still played only 43 snaps combined over the next two games. In Week 5, Hayward had a breakout performance in Indianapolis, and that continued a week later in Houston with his best game of the season. After Woodson suffered a broken collarbone in Week 7, Hayward's role increased again. Hayward earned it, too, and the Packers' defense was better off with him on the field. Hayward was terrific through Week 16 (with one setback in Week 9), but over the final three games of the season (playoffs included), Hayward wasn't quite as good in coverage as he had been to that point.
Upon further review: Hayward vastly exceeded all expectations. Only Clay Matthews had a better season on Green Bay's defense. Hayward showed incredible coverage skills for a rookie and had a knack for being near the ball. And, when Hayward had an opportunity for an interception, he displayed great hands to come down with it and create a turnover. Hayward is undersized at 5-foot-11, though, which is part of the reason Capers chose to not play him as much in Week 12 (opting for House, instead) in what turned out to be a blowout loss to the New York Giants. Capers apparently learned his lesson because Hayward was on the field for every snap the next two games. Hayward finished in the top five in the NFL in interceptions despite barely playing early in the season. Had he been a part of Capers' game plan from the opening week, Hayward likely would have won the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year award, rather than taking third place. If Hayward had been a top 10 pick in the draft, he still would have outperformed expectations. There was not a single cornerback in the entire NFL this past season who forced opposing quarterbacks into a lower passer rating than Hayward, even better than All-Pro cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Tim Jennings (who were ranked No. 2 and 3, respectively, behind him on that list).
Overall 2012 grade: A-
Status for 2013: 100 percent chance of being on the Packers' active roster in Week 1 next season. Hayward will have a shot at winning one of the starting outside cornerback jobs in 2013, competing with Williams, Shields and House. Regardless of whether he wins out there, Hayward is assured of playing the slot cornerback role in passing situations. After one NFL season, Hayward proved that he excels in the slot. There is very little evidence to indicate that he won't be able to successfully make a full-time switch outside, but that will be the next big step for Hayward to make in his career.