An NFL-leading seven interceptions, producing Pro Bowl and All-Pro Honors?
The third-most passes defensed with 20 breakups, resulting in being named the team MVP and Defensive Player of the Year?
Few things are guaranteed in the NFL, but one thing’s for certain - if you grow complacent and rest on your laurels, you’re destined for failure.
That’s why despite a breakout 2016 season in which he earned his place among the game’s elite cornerbacks, Casey Hayward is focused on what he can do for an encore instead of marveling at his accomplishments.
“That (stuff’s) in the past,” the cornerback said, using slightly more colorful language to emphasize his point. “That’s over with. I listened to all that (praise) in 2016. That’s what I worked for last year to get those (honors). To be All-Pro and in the Pro Bowl; to be considered one of those top players. Now it’s like, how can I do it over again?”
That’s a great question, and one the 27-year old asks himself every day heading into his sixth season.
While most would be happy to be finally recognized among the best in the league, the fact Hayward focuses on what he needs to improve rather than buy into the hype is the reason to expect the corner to take another leap forward in 2017.
“I want to be better than what I was. I need to figure out the things I wasn’t good at. Yeah, I led the league in picks, but I watch (the film) and I see sometimes my technique was poor. It wasn’t always there, so I need to work on my technique at the line of scrimmage. I want to work on my technique. I need to be a better tackler. I want to be better with my eyes. I want to be complete. There are so many things I can correct.”
Sitting in his hotel room on break between practice and the next meeting, Hayward fires up his Microsoft Surface to show exactly what he means. He doesn’t turn on the play in which he had blanket coverage on a deep route, nor the one in which he batted the ball away in the end zone.
Instead, he focuses on the play that’s been eating at him for a few days.
“Look at this,” he says, showing a play from a joint practice against the Rams. “I could have gotten this ball, but I missed it by a razor thin (margin). It’s because I looked (at the ball) coming out of my break instead of going to the ball. I can’t do that. I had a good day, but all it takes is one play to make a good day a bad one. I had bad technique, and that is what cost me. I can’t do that. If I get all this stuff down pat, and play 16 games, it can be a greater year for me. I just need to be more consistent.”
That’s the key word for Hayward – consistency. One of the knocks on him before he signed with the Chargers last offseason was how he followed up strong seasons with lackluster campaigns.
While the stats may support that theory, the tape shows another.
Hayward burst onto the scene with a dynamic 2012 campaign after the Green Bay Packers selected him 62nd overall in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft. The Vanderbilt product recorded six picks and 21 passes defensed, finishing third in NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. Expectations were sky-high for his sophomore campaign, but a hamstring injury limited him to only three games.
The cornerback bounced back in 2014, tying for seventh in the NFL with five total takeaways (three interceptions and two fumble recoveries) while playing in all 16 games. While he took another step forward in 2015, starting a career-high 11 games while notching 65 tackles and seven passes defensed, detractors noted that he didn’t record a single pick. However, they failed to note he did intercept a handful of passes throughout the year; but unfortunately, penalties away from the play negated those INTs.
“That’s just the way it goes,” Hayward said. “I had a solid year my last year in Green Bay, but I just didn’t produce the turnovers. People like to look at the stats and they’d say, ‘Oh, he didn’t have any picks.’ But I had a really good year. I only gave up a 52-percent completion rate, and only got scored on twice. I played at a high level, and my coach liked how I played. I did have some turnovers that got called back (Because of other players’ penalties). I felt like I actually played better from my third year to my fourth year, just without turnovers.”
It’s crazy to think Hayward lasted almost a full week on the open market during free agency last year. But as the corner explains, it’s because of the lack of picks in 2015.
“Turnovers, man, it’s turnovers. People looked at turnovers and not the whole game. I only gave up one touchdown last year while having seven interceptions. But even if I gave up 14 touchdowns, I feel like people still would have said I had a great year. There’s more to this game than turnovers, but I realize it’s an important part. That’s what I want to be known for, too. When people think of me, I want them to think of a ball-hawk.”
Hayward craves the opportunity to make plays, but that sometimes can come few and far between for the game’s best corners for good reason.
After all, if you were a quarterback, would you want to throw in his direction?
Luckily, Hayward believes the return of Jason Verrett from an ACL injury will give him even more opportunities to showcase his talents.
“With Jason out there, he’s another lockdown corner. So, quarterbacks (might be) forced to throw toward me more than they did last year. That means more chances for me to make a play.”