Playing best football of career, Hayden expects to be even better

Playing best football of career, Hayden expects to be even better

ALAMEDA – DJ Hayden is a forward thinker. The Raiders cornerback’s focus is locked on this current season and playing consistent, quality football.

Looking back won’t do him good right now. It would only distract from what has been a solid start to the 2016 season, where he’s operated well as the Raiders slot cornerback.

That might draw an eye roll from pessimistic factions of this fan base, but these numbers show a player performing well.

According to analytics site Pro Football Focus, Hayden has allowed less than 30 yards passing in three of this season’s first four games. Gains are short because his tackling’s been strong.

That was clear during Sunday’s victory over Baltimore, which marked his best game this year. He was targeted 10 times and allowed just five receptions for 27 yards (5.4ypc) and a 56.3 passer rating. He also had six tackles.

This strong start to the season is no surprise to Hayden, who has big plans in 2016. Something, it seems, might’ve clicked.

“I know it clicked,” Hayden said on’s Raiders Insider Podcast. “I know it’s going to be a great year for me. It’s a matter of time before I execute even better and sharpen up the little things. It’s about continuing to learn and playing good football.”

This is something head coach Jack Del Rio saw coming. He predicted improved play during the offseason program, saying Hayden had a chance to shed labels and be a productive player.

“DJ is playing well,” Del Rio said on Monday. “He’s done some good things. He was involved in several stops for us (against Baltimore). I feel like he’s had a good offseason, a good, productive camp and has been pretty steady for us. We need that to continue.”

Hayden looks to continue solid play Sunday against a San Diego Chargers team he has fared well against. He sealed victory in 2013 by intercepting Philip Rivers in the end zone. He got Rivers again in 2015 as part of another Raiders win.

That’s two of just three career interceptions for the No. 12 overall pick from the 2013 draft. He was Reggie McKenzie’s first first-round pick as Raiders general manager. That left all eyes locked on Hayden, especially after McKenzie said he would’ve taken Hayden at No. 3 overall before trading down.

That’s a ton of pressure on anyone, let alone someone recovering from a well-documented heart condition from a practice incident while at the University of Houston. He missed the offseason program, most of training camp and was still expected to contribute immediately on a bad team.

Hayden admits that provided extra weight then.

“Of course you’re going to feel pressure,” Hayden said. “Things didn’t go my way early in my career with injuries and stuff I had to deal with. That’s just adversity, and I have to look forward now, focus on this year. I can’t be thinking about what happened the last two or three years. I have to focus on this year and go out there and do my thing.”

And we're brought right back to the present, but those early days created a diamond tough exterior and helped form a player confident he’ll make consistently productive contributions.

“It definitely made me stronger,” Hayden said, “and a better person and a better football player going through that.”

For more from Hayden, including his thought’s on feeling comfortable in the slot, his unshakable confidence and his friendship with Maceo Alverez, a young boy battling heart issues, listen to the entire Raiders Insider Podcast right here.

Vontaze Burfict wants Antonio Brown beef behind him with both on Raiders now


Vontaze Burfict wants Antonio Brown beef behind him with both on Raiders now

Things might get awkward at the start of Raiders OTAs in May.

That's when new teammates Vontaze Burfict and Antonio Brown will share a locker room for the first time.

Burfict (Cincinnati Bengals) and Brown (Pittsburgh Steelers) played on opposite sides of one of the AFC North's fiercest rivalries, and things came to a head in the 2015 postseason. That's when Burfict knocked Brown out of the playoffs with a dirty, illegal hit to the head, and received a three-game NFL suspension. 

But Burfict, who signed a one-year contract with the Raiders on Tuesday, told reporters in a conference call he isn't concerned about any lingering tension between himself and the talented wide receiver.

"We're on the same team, with one goal. It's all positive, man," Burfict said. "He's a great player, he's gonna be a Hall of Famer one day, and honestly I'm gonna approach him just like I do all my other teammates. I'll introduce myself, all that good stuff. ... There's nothing negative over here, man. We're on the same team, everything's [about] trying to win a championship over here."

The Raiders traded for Brown earlier this month, and he tweeted Tuesday that he had already reached out to Burfict.

That's a marked departure from the ex-Steelers star. When former Pittsburgh teammate Juju Smith-Schuster crushed Burfict with a vicious block, "no one enjoyed [it] more than Brown," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Ron Cook wrote Tuesday. In the aftermath of Burfict's hit, Brown made his displeasure with the play clear to Cook.

“I feel like guys don’t want to stop me no more,” Brown told Cook in early 2016. “They want to take me out. They want to kill me. They want to steal my dreams. They want to ruin me. They want to end me.”

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Burfict, for his part, sounded more than ready to bury the hatchet Tuesday. He said he'll keep an open mind when he meets Brown, as well as the rest of his new teammates.

"Honestly, we might [end up being] the closest friends on the team, you know what I mean," Burfict said. "So, just gotta go along with it, and I can't wait to meet him."

If Brown's tweet is any indication, he feels the same way. 

Vontaze Burfict wastes no time reuniting with Raiders DC Paul Guenther


Vontaze Burfict wastes no time reuniting with Raiders DC Paul Guenther

Vontaze Burfict was cut by the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday, and immediately called his mother. The veteran linebacker explained the situation, ended the call and then made another one.

“The second person I called was Pauly G,” Burfict said. “He didn’t pick up. I think I called him like seven times straight.”

Those who know Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther best call him “Pauly G.” Count Burfict firmly in that class.

That’s why Burfict didn’t last long on the open market. The Raiders signed him Tuesday night to a one-year contract reportedly worth up to $5 million, less than 24 hours after he was released.

A Guenther-Burfict reunion seemed inevitable because of the veteran’s expertise running the coordinator's defensive scheme and a clear bond on and off the field.

Player and coach have a close relationship dating to Burfict’s rookie season in Cincinnati. Guenther was Burfict's position coach in 2012, and the two fostered a strong working relationship during a long-night cram session before a Sept. 23 game against Washington. Thomas Howard hurt his knee, Burfict recalled, and Guenther told him he would start and play out of position. Burfict was a middle linebacker by trade, but the Bengals needed him on the outside.

“It was like 8 p.m., and he took his time out to set the trash cans up and go through the whole playbook over like two hours with me,” Burfict said in a conference call after he signed with the Raiders. “I got like nine tackles that game, and I just looked at him and said, ‘I appreciate that. You took your time out when you could’ve just gone home.' Ever since then, it has been a close relationship to where I know his kids and his wife. We go out to dinner. It’s a good time to have a good relationship like that with a coach.”

That should help Guenther’s system run smoothly, an important factor with so much youth on defense. Burfict can be an on-field coordinator if he can stay healthy and out of trouble with the NFL.

Burfict said he’s fully fit after concussion problems last season and health issues in recent years. The NFL has disciplined him several times for vicious, illegal after-the-whistle hits that some consider dirty. That includes a nasty blow dropped on former Steelers receiver and new Raiders teammate Antonio Brown that generated plenty of negative press.

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Burfict doesn’t consider his style poor form.

“I’m not a dirty player,” Burfict said. “I play a physical position at middle linebacker. I can’t go in there playing patty-cake. If I do that, I’m going to get run over. I have 300-plus-pound linemen coming in trying to block me. If I play soft, I’m not doing my job. … I play a physical position where I have to put my jockstrap on right, put my cleats on right and be ready to play physical.”