ALAMEDA — 347 days have passed since Oakland Raiders cornerback D.J. Hayden took to the turf and lined up across from a wide out.
After two injuries, nearly a year of waiting, and high expectations from the fan base, Hayden is eligible to practice and eager to get back to playing football:
“I felt like I was 100 percent, like, three weeks ago, running and cutting and stuff. I just had to wait my time and I waited it, and now it’s my time.”
The second-year defensive back was drafted 12th overall in 2013, and has yet to make a big impact on the Raiders secondary. The limited sample has led to angry fans hurling insults at the Houston product, restless and itching for a win.
His college tape showed undeniable talent — shadowing any receiver he lined up against — and came with a potential fairy tale story after nearly dying in practice during a routine play.
Since being drafted, he’s sustained a season-ending sports hernia, and more recently hurt his ankle during organized team activities in May.
To a team lacking talent in the secondary, he’s a guy that can be a big difference maker. And head coach Tony Sparano is happy to have him active off the physically unable to perform list.
In his first day back in practice Wednesday, Hayden grabbed an interception but for a moment, seemed bewildered on what to do next.
“I asked him if he forgot what to do with it after he catches that thing. But, he did a good job today out there and in his time out there today, so I’m sure he was excited to be out there and we were excited to have him out there today.”
As practice started, Sparano looked for Hayden, whom he called a rookie, and shook his hand. Hayden is another piece to the Raiders defensive puzzle, which has been wildly inconsistent over the first five games of 2014.
The team has yet to make a decision on when Hayden will be activated for game action, and he certainly has some rust to shake off. On that, Sparano says it’s all about small victories:
“Small successes every day on the practice field. Today was a small success. He went out there and he got a chance to run around a little bit and be with his teammates and do some of that, so that’s an important first step. Then I think there’s some more small successes coming up where maybe his workload increases a little bit, and then whenever we decide, hopefully as we get to that point, that he gets involved in a ball game and what his role is in that game at that time.”
Andre Holmes emerging as a top receiver
Wide receiver Andre Holmes has been a player Raiders fans have been itching to see get more playing time. It appears that time has come, and Holmes hasn’t disappointed.
Holmes nabbed two touchdowns in Sunday’s last second loss to the San Diego Chargers, on four catches and 121 yards. Fans may want to expect some more of that, and quarterback Derek Carr couldn’t be any higher on him:
“He did a great job of running the routes at the right depth and those things, catching the ball. He’s really been extending plays, like the third play of the game, catching that ball and finishing the rest of it. He’s doing a good job.”
Carr, being the selfless player he is, didn’t fail to mention his other receivers Wednesday. Neither did Sparano, and the coaches have been high on the receiver group since the offseason really got rolling.
Sparano said of Holmes:
“I hope he can become a guy that the quarterback continues to feel really comfortable with. I think somebody brought the question up, maybe a couple of days ago, about Derek (Carr) mentioned that he’d throw that ball 95 percent of the ball to him or any of those type of things, and that’s a comfort level that develops between a receiver and a quarterback, and that’s kind of good to see right now.”
Getting ready for familiar faces
The Raiders have lost several big named faces to free agency, trades, or by releasing players to solve salary cap problems since general manager Reggie McKenzie took over in 2012.
For the most part, they’ve upgraded at the positions they lost out at, but some of the most notable players have found their way onto the Arizona Cardinals roster.
Quarterback Carson Palmer was traded from Oakland to Arizona in 2013, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly released by the Raiders, and left tackle Jared Veldheer walked after a roller coaster of negotiations between McKenzie and Veldheer’s brother, who is also his agent.
Veldheer signed a five year deal with the Cardinals in March, worth $35 million, nearly one third of which is guaranteed.
The trio come to Oakland this Sunday against a revamped Raiders team who is thirsty for their first win of the season. Sparano said he’s not concerned about seeing any former Raiders, noting that anyone who’s been around the league long enough will have to deal with this sort of thing.