With the 2012 NFL season in the books, and the scouting combine in the rear-view, it's time to take a closer look at the 50 players we think will be the biggest difference-makers at the next level from this draft class. To that end, we're happy to continue this year's Shutdown 50 scouting reports (Hint: There may actually be more than 50). You can read last year's group here. The final 50 players were chosen and ranked based on game tape, combine and Pro Day results, overall positional value, and attributes and liabilities on and off the field.
#15: D.J. Hayden, CB, Houston
We continue this year's series with Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden -- who, quite frankly, is lucky to be alive right now, much less trying to cement his status as one of the best overall players in this draft class. Last November, Hayden suffered a tear of the internal vena cava, the primary vein to his heart, during practice, and he came very close to dying.
"We were doing team versus scout team," Hayden recalled at Houston's pro day in mid-March. "They threw the ball my way. Me and the safety ran into each other. His knee hit me in my chest. I fell to the ground. It felt like I got the wind knocked out of me. When I was breathing, I just wasn’t breathing right. [The doctor] took me inside. He was asking me these questions and I was getting real cold. I’m looking around and I’m getting real sleepy. My left eye goes pitch black. I can’t see out of it. I can see a little bit out of my right eye. I’m praying, ‘Lord, help me get out of this one.’
“They rushed me to the hospital and did a scan on my stomach and my chest. They saw a lot of blood in my abdomen. They thought it was my liver or my spleen. The doctor said he was going to have to cut me open. I said, ‘Okay, just don’t mess my abs up.’ So they cut through my sternum and saw the [inferior vena cava], the main vein to your heart, was torn. He put some sutures, stitched it back together, closed me back up, and here I am today.”
It wasn't quite that simple. Alonzo Highsmith, senior personnel executive for the Green Bay Packers, told the Houston Chronicle that he'd never seen a player with an injury like this. Why? Because 95 percent of the people who suffer a torn vena cava don't make it back alive.
"It's the most unique injury in the history of the draft," Highsmith said."The only people that ever had it aren't alive, and doctors have never seen it."
And yet, less than six months after nearly losing his life, Hayden ran a 4.33 40-yard dash at the aforementioned pro day. He couldn't go for a second try because he dinged his hamstring, but the simple fact that he was back in play had to make NFL teams very happy. Though he was hidden away in Conference USA, Hayden's abilities simply explode off the tape, and there's a good argument to be made that he's the most talented pass defender in this draft class. After two years in junior college, Hayden joined the Cougars in time for the 2011 season, and didn't waste any time making an impact. He put up 52 solo tackles, 8.0 of them for loss, two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), and five forced fumbles. He proved to be even more of a ballhawk in 2012, grabbing four interceptions and returning two for touchdowns in just nine games. Those who were late to the party on Hayden because they (legitimately) wondered if he'd ever play football again are now left to wonder -- is he worth a first-round pick with the risk? There's no question whatsoever that he looks that way on the field.
"Most of the teams have come to the conclusion that it was a once-in-a-gazillion situation," Mike Mayock of the NFL Network said of Hayden during his most recent pre-draft conference call. "That has no more chance of happening than it did in the first place."
Pros: Hayden has by far the best backpedal of any defensive back in this draft class -- starts his feet smoothly, gets up to top speed quickly, and transitions very well to turn and run. Has a smooth hip turn -- doesn't get lost in transition against faster receivers. When playing off coverage, fires back to receivers making catches underneath and tackles well enough to prevent high gains after the catch. Plays press coverage more with mirroring skills than pure aggression, but has a great sense of how to re-direct off the line. Establishes inside and outside position off the line with angle and body control. Has the pure speed to run deep seam and sideline routes, and make plays along the way.
Does a fantastic job of baiting quarterbacks by playing just far enough away from his receiver, then closing quickly for the deflection or interception. Has the cross-field velocity to impact the passing game far away from his original spot (forced fumble against UCLA was a prime example). Redirects in space extremely well. Smart player who won't be fooled by combo routes and other tricks. Transitions to the safety in zone coverage without a hitch. Good wrap tackler for his size (5-foot-11, 191 pounds) -- will take on blocks, keep his eyes on the target, and disengage to make the play. Has the quickness to play the slot, and the natural aggression to deal with traffic in that role.
Cons: Will get too aggressive with his hands on straight-line routes at times and needs to remember to play the ball to avoid penalties. NFL quarterbacks will try and toy with him, as he tends to keep his eyes on the backfield too long at times. Questions about strength of competition will come up, but the extent to which Hayden held up against better teams and receivers, and how he keeps popping off the tape with his obvious attributes, should put some minds at ease. Medical concerns are even more obvious, but teams will undoubtedly do their due diligence, and all the news regarding his recovery is good so far.
Conclusion: At his Pro Day, Hayden also reached 33.5 inches on his vertical jump, and 10 feet on the broad jump. Those figures would have disappointed had he been able to put them up at the scouting combine in comparison to other defensive backs, but again -- we have to put this stuff in perspective. NFL teams looking to put Hayden's future in perspective will have to look hard at the potential for tragedy (and, to be crass about it, liability) while also understanding that if this was a fluke injury that puts him in no unusual danger for re-occurrence, someone's going to get a lead-pipe lock franchise cornerback, and they probably won't have to spend a first-round pick to do it.
Janoris Jenkins was a first-round talent who went in the second round, though his reasons were his own doing. But when he got his head on straight and adjusted to the NFL, Jenkins was an total impact player for the Rams, returning three of his four interceptions for touchdowns in his rookie season. D.J. Hayden has that kind of potential, without any of the attendant baggage.