Raiders' Hayden comfortable moving inside to defend the slot
NAPA, Calif. (AP) Raiders defensive back DJ Hayden knows his NFL career might already be at a crossroads after just three seasons.
That point was driven home emphatically in the offseason when the team made multiple changes to the secondary, bringing in veteran Sean Smith to pair with David Amerson as the starting cornerbacks.
The Raiders also declined to pick up the fifth-year option on Hayden's contract, meaning that - barring a change from Oakland's front office - the 12th overall pick in the 2013 draft will go into the offseason next year as a free agent.
Not that Hayden seems bothered by it one way or the other.
The 26-year-old reported to training camp leaner and more muscular as he transitions from playing on the outside to defending the slot receiver.
The move has gone smoothly so far, too, as Hayden intercepted a pass from quarterback Matt McGloin and returned it for a touchdown on Saturday then made a nice play to break up a deep throw from Derek Carr on Sunday.
''I feel like I'm more confident,'' Hayden said Sunday. ''It's my fourth year, it's about time I made some plays. I want to score some touchdowns. Pretty confident I will.''
Hayden has struggled to live up to expectations after becoming the first first-round pick by Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie.
Hayden came out of college having survived a near-fatal heart injury, was plagued by injuries that limited him to 18 games over his first two seasons and has just three interceptions.
Last season, Hayden started 13 games, played in all 16 and had a career-best 70 tackles.
Now he's moving inside after spending time there last season as the Raiders' nickel back while Smith and Amerson start at cornerback.
''Inside, you have to kind of come at it at a different approach because (receivers have) got so much field to work with,'' Hayden said. ''But it's pretty much the same thing. `That's your guy, cover him.' I like it, I like it a lot.''
The Raiders held their first fully padded practice of training camp Sunday and Hayden stood out with his play to break up the pass from Carr.
A small step, to be sure, but a signficant one for Hayden.
''His confidence is really high,'' Raiders' second-year defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. ''He loves what he's doing. We have competition across the board and he's a competitor so he's fitting right in and competing every day.''
The challenge for Hayden isn't so much about transitioning to a new position. It's in convincing the coaching staff - and perhaps other teams around the NFL - that he can play, and play well, no matter where he lines up.
''We have a lot of film, a lot of evaluating but he's a really good football player and he really wants to be good,'' Norton said. ''There's really nothing stopping him. He's a guy that we really see as a guy that's really going to excel this year.''
Hayden has been one of the few constants in a secondary that has undergone sweeping changes almost every year since McKenzie was hired as general manager in 2012. One of the biggest changes this year has been adjusting to the absence of safety Charles Woodson, who retired last year after 17 NFL seasons.
''You can't replace Charles Woodson, but we can pick up the slack,'' Hayden said. ''We're going to have to because he's not here anymore. It's next man up.''
NOTES: Kelechi Osemele was held out of practice for undisclosed reasons, but coach Jack Del Rio said he expects the veteran left guard to be back on Monday. ... McGloin and undrafted rookie wide receiver Johnny Holton made the plays of the day when they connected on a pair of long touchdown passes.
AP NFL websites: http://pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL