GREEN BAY – A lost second season in 2013 didn’t damage Casey Hayward’s nose for the ball.
The Packers’ young cornerback rebounded from the hamstring problems that nagged him two years ago to tie for the team lead in takeaways in 2014. He had three interceptions and two fumble recoveries, returning one of each for a touchdown.
As the nickel or dime corner who started only once, Hayward played roughly 20 to 30-plus defensive snaps per game, so his impact in the turnover department was substantial.
That’s been the story of his football career, as he concluded his college days at Vanderbilt with 13 interceptions in his last two seasons, and then burst onto the NFL scene with a rookie-best six picks in 2012.
“Casey is such a ball guy,” said Joe Whitt, Hayward’s cornerbacks coach. “I call him a ball magnet, because the ball just finds some people.”
If that continues in 2015, the Packers’ defense will be better for it.
Hayward is the odds on favorite to start at cornerback this season opposite Sam Shields, following the free-agent departure of Tramon Williams. To date, most of Hayward’s playing time has come in the slot because of the two starters ahead of him, but Whitt has said repeatedly he’s never viewed Hayward as strictly a slot corner.
Hayward wasn’t able to actively pursue his first full-time starting gig this spring, though, due to a foot injury that sidelined him throughout OTAs and minicamp. Even so, Whitt wasn’t about to give away the job before allowing Hayward every chance to lock it down.
“I think Casey is a fine, fine player,” Whitt said as the offseason program wrapped up. “I think he’s going to have a really good year this year.
“I hope he comes back healthy and in shape, and if he does, we’re going to have two really good corners outside, and we just have to find a third and a fourth guy to complement them.”
Those third and fourth options will come from a group including rookies Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, second-year pro Demetri Goodson, and a handful of other young prospects. Whitt’s primary job this year is to rebuild the Packers’ cornerback depth that was as good as it’s ever been last year, when Davon House was also in the fold.
That depth was one reason Whitt said Hayward probably deserved to play more snaps than he did last season. There was still plenty of tape to evaluate during the offseason, though, including two rough moments for Hayward down the stretch in Seattle in the NFC title game loss.
Hayward was by no means the only Packers player to have breakdowns late in Seattle. He’s simply one of many with personal fuel to add to the fire.
“We talk about every play out of every game,” Whitt said. “We started with the Seattle game and worked backwards through the season.
“We understand what we need to do if we’re going to be a championship-caliber team and the mistakes we can’t make. Everything was detailed out, and we look forward to executing it next year the way it should be.”
Expect Hayward to get that full-time shot.
“If he’s healthy, he’s going to be really good,” Whitt said. “Casey Hayward is the last thing I’m worried about. Casey can be as good in this league as he wants to be, if he’s healthy.”