Our look at cornerbacks of interest to your beloved Cowboys continues with a profile of Vanderbilt's Casey Hayward, who has been a major contributor for the Commodores since stepping on campus. He played in every game as a true freshman in 2008; the following season, he became a starter, and has started all 37 games the past three years, collecting 15 career interceptions and garnering second team All-SEC honors the past two campaigns for a team that struggled against the SEC's elites. As a senior co-captain in 2011, Hayward put together a sensational year, contributing a career-high seven interceptions and 17 passes defended.
Although his team has had little success throughout his career, Hayward acquitted himself well every week against the SEC's top wideouts, including Julio Jones, A. J. Green, Alshon Jeffery, Reuben Randle, and Mike Wallace. The 5'11" Hayward has length and good, if not superb, speed (4.53 forty-yard dash). He compensates for any shortcomings in his wheels with good instincts and elite quickness (his 3.9 second short shuttle was the best among cornerbacks at the Combine). His other Combine marks? The good: 19 bench-press reps; 6.76 3-cone drill. The middling: 34-inch vertical; just less than 10-foot long jump. Here's his combine workout, replete with soundtrack.
He plays with confidence and physicality, and is quick to diagnose. He has good ball skills, showing the ability to sit on routes and "click and close." Hayward times his jumps well and has the body control to break up passes. Want evidence in support of these claims? Well, Ol' Rabble's got some vids for you: A 2010 highlight compilation and 2011 games against teams, in Arkansas and South Carolina, with with legit NFL receivers. As you might see from these clips, Hayward often needs safety help over the top. He's at his best as long as the play is in front of him. Because of this, Hayward is at his best when in off or zone coverage, which explains why some scouts have suggested a move to free safety might be his best route to NFL success.
Hayward will probably be graded quite differently by different teams, as he's not what Mike Mayock would call "scheme-diverse." Before we consider what he has that Dallas might value, lets delve a bit deeper into his game, courtesy of our compendium of cornerback connoisseurs...after the jump, natch.
National Football Post (Wes Bunting): 9th-rated CB; 48th overall
Possesses good height and a thin build, but has the frame to add additional girth without losing much athleticism. Displays a natural feel for the pass game in zone coverage. Keeps his head on a swivel, feels routes develop around him and displays the fluidity in his hips to quickly open up and make a play on the football. Is at his best in off coverage where he can sit in routes, read and react, and can simply undercut throws. Displays some natural click and close ability when driving on passes in front of him. However, gets too upright in his drop, doesn't consistently keep his base under him and wastes too much motion out of his breaks. Not as clean as he could be driving on the football. Picked off 6 passes last year and recorded 17 passes defended. But displays only slightly above-average ball skills. Will leave some picks on the field and I don't think his ball skills are quite as good as his stats make them out to be. Needs to do a better job catching the football more consistently.
Not real comfortable in man coverage at this stage however. Lacks great straight-line speed and doesn't seem to trust himself on an island. When he plays closer to the line likes to prematurely open up his hips in order to keep receivers from quickly getting behind him, will give up routine separation underneath. Gets upright when asked to turn and run, doesn't possess the type of second gear to quickly get back up to speed and can easily be taken advantage of by vertical speed. Gets leggy out of his breaks as well trying to re-direct because of his high pad level.
He does locate the football well in all areas of the game, possess good balance when asked to adjust to the throw and possesses the coordination to make a play at the highest point. Is only an average drag down tackler, and lacks pop into contact but takes good angles toward the football and gives an honest effort.
Impression: A smart, productive corner who can consistently make plays on the football. He's not a guy who will consistently hold up in man on the outside in the NFL. However, he's shown the ability to routinely get early jumps on the football and come down with the catch. Looks like one of the safer prospects in the draft as a cover two type guy.
CBS Sports (Dane Brugler): 11th-rated CB; 78th overall
Strengths: A coordinated athlete with good footwork and balance. Heady cover player with above-average feel and anticipation in space. Trusts his eyes with very good awareness. Has very good reaction skills to break quickly on the ball. Savvy cover skills to recognize and anticipate routes, understanding what the offense wants to do. Has terrific ball skills with the focus and hands to secure interceptions in traffic. Very opportunistic with 15 career picks the last three years. Tough and aggressive to hold up against the run and work off blocks. Smart, aware and confident and has started every game the past three seasons at Vanderbilt (37 consecutive starts).
Weaknesses: Has only average height and length (30-inch arms) with a slender frame and lean muscle definition. Lacks top-shelf speed and doesn't have great acceleration. Doesn't have elite fluidity and struggles to recover after false steps. Lacks explosion in his transition with upright technique and has inconsistent backpedal, opening his hips prematurely to guard against vertical routes. Doesn't look natural in reverse and needs to keep the play in front of him to be effective. Lacks ideal strength and will be out-muscled by receivers. Inconsistent against the run and needs to improve his tackling fundamentals in order to finish. Too physical and hands-on in coverage, arriving early and attracting pass interference penalties. Lacks much experience in press coverage and appears scheme specific at the next level.
Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki): 9th rated CB; 67th overall
Positives: Good size. Quick feet and flexible hip swivel. Keen eyes, instincts and anticipation. Is aware in zone and maintains field leverage. Excellent ball skills and production. Tracks throws, competes in the air and has hands to intercept. Very good closing burst . Bested all Combine CB participants with time of 3.90 seconds in short shuttle. Has special-teams experience as a jammer. Energetic, smart and durable.
Negatives: Short arms. Speed and physicality are just adequate. Has some man-cover limitations—plays upright, shows some wasted movement in transition and gives up separation on non-vertical routes. Stressed by sudden receivers. Gets caught peeking in the backfield and bites on double moves. Average recovery burst and catch-up speed. Soft in run support—plays small, struggles to break down and is a weak, low tackler.
Summary: A lean, instinctive, battle-tested ballhawk, Hayward is a finesse, zone corner at his best reading through the receiver to the quarterback. Tackling is main drawback, but has appealing ball skills to hold down a job as a No. 3.
ESPN/ Scouts, Inc. (Gary Horton): 15th–rated CB; 93rd overall
Instincts/Recognition: Reads receivers and quarterback. Above average route recognition skills and can get an early break on the ball. Above average discipline and plays the ball not the man in zone coverage. Splits high-low routes. Rarely takes the bait and drifts out of position. Appears comfortable in the slot and on the outside.
Cover Skills: Can turn and run with receivers but doesn't always extend arms and stab receivers when asked to press. Can get knocked off balance when receivers are able to get to his frame. Fluidity is just average and can lose footing when forced to change directions quickly. More effective in zone than is matching up in man. Plants back foot and shows above average closing speed when facing the line of scrimmage.
Ball Skills: Can reach in with left arm and knock the ball down without getting flagged for pass interference. Aggressive and attacks the ball when it's in the air. Has been a playmaker in terms of production but interceptions have been a product of positioning more than ball skills. Traps ball against frame and drops too many passes that should pick off. Multiple drops in the 2011 Arkansas game.
Run Support: Average size and can take too long to get off blocks but not for lack of effort. Plays with a chip on shoulder. Not a big hitter but plays under control and breaks down into sound position. Can cut the legs out from under bigger ball carrier. Not afraid to mix it up with offensive linemen and can cut their legs out from under them.
Intangibles: Named team's most valuable defensive back following 2009 season. Has experience covering kicks and running the ball on offense. Played quarterback in high school. Flagged for personal foul in the first quarter of the 2011 Arkansas game but there's a lot to like about his aggressiveness and tenacity.
Our scouts aren't in unison re: Hayward's draft position. Neither are they widely divergent in their opinions. In fact, I'd suspect that any divergence can be explained by the degree to which each scout values (or doesn't) Hayward's skillset, and that teams that run zone or off coverage schemes (or cover two, since he's a good tackler) will bump him up their boards. But here's the rub: Dallas spent a gazillion dollars on Brandon Carr precisely because he excels in the press/ man coverage that Rob Ryan wants to run behind his complex blitz packages. And Hayward's not that kind of corner.
How, then, to explain his invitation to the Ranch? My best guess is that they value his size (at 5'11 3/8", he's got the length that they seem to want in their corners), and they want to see if he's got some of the other qualities they value and can make the transition either to their scheme - after all, neither Dre Kirkpatrick nor Stephon Gilmore excel in press coverage - or to safety. Given his skinny (185 lb.) frame, I'm going to guess the former. I feel pretty certain some team will pick him in the third round, so I'll slot him there, at pick # 81, all the while imagining that there are other, better CB fits for Ryan's scheme.
Next up: LSU CB Ron Brooks