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Raiders draft cornerback Hayden for speed, skill

Houston defensive back D.J. Hayden (2) breaks up a pass intended for Penn State's Derek Moye in TicketCity Bowl at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas, Monday, January 2, 2012.

Dallas Morning News
Published: Thursday, April 25, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 25, 2013 at 10:55 p.m.

ALAMEDA — Raiders scouts and coaches have added a new phrase to their lexicon, one that reporters and fans were scrambling to define on Thursday: inferior vena cava.

It's a large vein that receives blood from the lower limbs and abdomen and delivers it to the right atrium of the heart. D.J. Hayden's inferior vena cava ruptured during a routine-looking practice play on Nov. 6, and it very nearly killed the University of Houston cornerback.

Hayden didn't just survive the injury. He battled back to become a top prospect in this 2013 draft, and the Raiders made him their first selection with the twelfth overall pick, hoping he will join a long line of elite Oakland/L.A. corners that includes Willie Brown, Mike Haynes, Lester Hayes, Charles Woodson and Nnamdi Asomugha.

“The one quality that you look at when you're looking at corners is you're looking for guys that can cover, and this guy can cover,” Raiders coach Dennis Allen said. “He can cover man-to-man, he's got great speed, he's got great quickness, he's got the ability to play both off and press coverage. And really one of the things I really look at is, how does the guy make plays on the ball, specifically the ball down the field, and he does a tremendous job of that.”

Hayden wasn't the extent of the Raiders' haul on Day 1. They also picked up a second-round draft choice in a trade with the Miami Dolphins.

The Raiders, who need help at virtually every position, came into the draft with the No. 3 pick, but were seen as likely candidates to trade back for an extra selection or two. As general manager Reggie McKenzie acknowledged, the offers started to dry up as the draft began. They got one they liked, though, sending the No. 3 to Miami for the Nos. 12 and 42. It was a significant addition for Oakland, which had forfeited its original second-round pick in trading for Carson Palmer in 2011.

Thursday night, McKenzie insisted the Raiders would have selected Hayden at No. 3. They also figured he would likely be available nine picks later. And if he wasn't, the team had “about five” other players they were interested in, McKenzie said.

Hayden's path to the first round has been a strange one. The Missouri City, Texas, native started at Navarro College in Cosicana, Texas, before getting his shot at Houston. He was an immediate hit, a daring playmaker whose leadership skills made him a team captain.

Then came the moment that nearly ended it all. Hayden came up to defend a pass in practice, and was hit in the chest by another Cougars defensive back, Trevon Stewart. Observers said it looked no different than a thousand other plays, but the contact severed Hayden's inferior vena cava. It's an injury normally seen in car accidents, and the survival rate is 5 percent.

Only a series of good decisions saved Hayden's life. Trainers got him onto the training table immediately, Houston's head athletic trainer called an ambulance just as quickly and first responders quickly opted to transport Hayden straight to Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, one of the world's best facilities for heart emergencies.

Hayden lost 25 pounds during his recovery, which took several months.

“I was just wondering if I would walk straight again,” he said on a conference call Thursday. “That's what was on my mind, just walking straight again. I wasn't worried about life after football, life after college. I was just worried about walking.”

Hayden went to the scouting combine in February, but did not work out. As you might imagine, NFL teams took great interest in his health.

“The doctors was amazed when I walked in the room and they saw my scar ... ,” Hayden said. “And I told my story at least 300 times.”

Hayden ran a 4.33 40-yard dash at his pro day on March 18, reportedly got a clean bill of health from most teams and began to climb on the draft boards. Considered a second-round pick just a few weeks ago, he was believed to be an automatic first-rounder when the draft began. The Raiders, if they are to be believed, felt he was the third best player in the entire draft.

McKenzie said Hayden is cleared to participate in the team's first minicamp.

It was a risky draft choice by the second-year GM, who was making a first-round pick for first time. Several more highly touted players were available when he drafted at No. 12, including defensive linemen Sharrif Floyd and Star Lotulelei. The Raiders certainly could have used a stout body on the D-line. The team liked Hayden more, and McKenzie pulled the trigger.

“I'm gonna get the best player,” McKenzie said. “Once we declare our draft board, we're gonna follow it. We're not gonna try to fill this need and fill that need and go into the offseason saying, 'We got players that we needed.' We want to get players that we think make a difference. We want difference-makers, guys that can make plays. And that's where he was on our board.”

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You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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