One team’s loss is another team’s treasure. When the San Diego Chargers signed cornerback Casey Hayward to a multi-year contract in the offseason, the Green Bay Packers knew they let one get away. The Chargers knew they were getting a well-rounded defensive back that would come in and upgrade their already talented secondary that featured Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett.
Turns out both teams guessed correctly in their assessment of Hayward. After spending the first four years of his National Football League career with the Packers, Hayward became the new guy on the block with the Chargers. He had to learn a whole new system, adjust to the warm sunny California weather and try to fit comfortably in the locker room.
He also had to earn his keep on the football field. Hayward did a little bit more that, earning his first nod as a Pro Bowl player. One way of gaining that kind of recognition as a defensive back is putting your hands on the ball more than opposing offenses wide receivers do. Leading the league with seven interceptions, Hayward can be seen now as a certified ballhawk.
As a rookie with the Packers, Hayward recorded six picks. So you know the fifth-year player from Vanderbilt University, has a nose for the ball. However, Hayward doesn’t look at the number of picks as an indicator of just how well he’s been playing. He sees it as simply taking advantage of the opportunities placed in front of him to make plays.
“I would say it helps,” Hayward said in a phone interview. “But it doesn’t really solidify (how he’s been playing). I know people who really don’t have any interceptions and they’re playing pretty well. I’ve been watching film on them and they play pretty well. But there are a lot of people who got picks that’s playing well as well. It helps when you can get turnovers for your offense and turnovers for your team. I’m pretty sure if you have seven turnovers, you’re probably playing pretty good.”
When Hayward arrived in San Diego there was no certainty where he would fit in. Flowers occupied one corner spot. Verrett, who was coming off a Pro Bowl stint in 2015, locked up the other side. With Verrett going down for the year with an ACL injury, and with Flowers in and out of the lineup because of various maladies, Hayward has been the one constant this season for the Chargers’ defensive secondary.
“Just taking advantage of the opportunities when the ball comes my way,” Hayward said. “When the ball hits your hand…catch it. (It’s) just me making plays outside. Sometimes you get tipped balls, you’re in the right place at the right times, and just film study and diagnosing plays and kind of knowing what’s coming.”
Knowing what’s coming has been a two-fold process for Hayward. There’s the natural instincts every defensive back rely on from time to time. Then there is the preparation part. Hayward has benefited greatly throughout his career from both. Paying attention to the smallest of details comes from his habitual routine of film study, largely queued in by the four years he spent in Green Bay.
His steady flow of interceptions throughout the season, including the two interceptions he made off with in the Chargers’ 38-14 win against Jacksonville in Week 2, could be attributed to the work habits in the film room he picked up from his stint with the Packers.
“When I first got there I thought I really knew how to study film, but I really didn’t,” Hayward said. “In college, you go by the numbers and things like that. In the pros, they line up everywhere. So Joe Witt, my coach there (Green Bay), he did a great job. I saw him show me how to break down film and showing me how to be a pro, and I think that definitely helped me in my four years there, just recognizing film and being a student of the game.”
Even without the interceptions total he’s racked up this year, Hayward has been the ultimate defensive interventionist for the Chargers. Let’s take a look at what happened in Week 15 against the AFC West-leading Oakland Raiders and their big, bad offense. The Raiders pass offense is ranked No. 5 in the NFL. Oakland ranked No. 6 in total offense before they faced off with the Chargers. That meant Hayward and Co. would a get healthy dose of stud wide receiver Amari Cooper.
The Chargers lost 19-16, but they held Oakland eight points below their scoring average. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr looked like anything but an MVP candidate with his 219 passing yards. As for Cooper, Hayward was all over him, limiting the Pro Bowl wide receiver to just one catch for 28 yards. This feat didn’t go unnoticed by Chargers coach Mike McCoy.
“The one catch that he (Cooper) did catch over on the sidelines, on his cornerback route, it was a great throw by Derek (Carr),” McCoy said. “He (Hayward) just missed it. But I think for the most part, like Casey’s played all year long, he’s done an outstanding job for us.”
Hayward has come a long way from his three-sport duty at Georgia’s Perry High School where he excelled in football, basketball and track. But some of the core values he learned back then from one of his high school football coaches and from his parents, particularly his father, remain at the core of what he’s about as a professional football player.
One of the things that influenced him was the work ethic he picked came from a father, Casey Hayward Sr., who once worked as a manager at McDonald’s. Although he doesn’t really have to, the elder Hayward keeps plowing away, working today at Lowes.
The younger Hayward has nothing but respect for what his pop does and what he implemented inside of him. And that drives him to be the best football player he can be.
“Just as a little kid I seen all the hard work he did growing up, working night in and night out,” Hayward said. “That rubbed off on me at a young age. My parents didn’t actually make me work as long as I was doing stuff, getting into activities and having my grades right. They didn’t force me to work. They took care of everything and that definitely rubbed off on me for sure.”