More than 'luck': Casey Hayward Jr. providing Raiders with stellar play, veteran leadership

Casey Hayward Jr. has played 237 snaps without allowing a touchdown in his coverage this season. Chris Unger/Getty Images

HENDERSON, Nev. -- How did Casey Hayward Jr. spend at least part of his bye week?

Getting honored in his old stomping grounds, Perry (Georgia) High School, retiring his jersey No. 3.

And how has the 32-year-old Las Vegas Raiders cornerback spent his first season with the team? By reinvigorating his game and playing at an All-Pro level not seen in these parts since before Nnamdi Asomugha became an acclaimed movie director and actor.

Indeed, critics charged that the two-time Pro Bowler with 23 career interceptions was in the autumn, if not the winter, of his career when he signed a one-year free-agent deal with the Raiders this past spring.

"I didn't even know they said that," Hayward said with a laugh earlier this season. "I didn't know they said that but, you know, for the media, I don't care what they say. Good or bad, I just watch the film with our coaches and they're going to tell me if I played good or not. So, it don't matter if they say I'm washed or not. My goal is just to try to go out there and compete, each and every week.

"And I think they brought me here to have a veteran presence and try to lead these guys. That's what I'm trying to do. It's not going to be perfect. I'm not going to make every play. People are going to catch the ball. I just got lucky the first two games that nobody caught the ball. Each and every week the goal is to win."

Then go ahead and check off both of those boxes -- vet presence and stellar play.

Entering the Raiders' bye week, Hayward was Pro Football Focus' highest-graded cornerback in the NFL in pass coverage and had the highest overall defensive grade among corners. He also had the most coverage snaps (237) without allowing a touchdown heading into the Raiders' meeting at the New York Giants on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS).

So even though he has yet to get an interception, his presence is effectively cutting off half of the field, and 17 of his 18 tackles have been solo takedowns.

Even when he's given up a catch, he's made it a positive for Las Vegas. Or did you miss the first reception he surrendered, in Week 3 against the Miami Dolphins, when he sniffed out a screen pass to Jaylen Waddle in the end zone and stuck him for a safety?

The Raiders were trailing by two touchdowns at the time and Hayward motioned to fellow cornerback Trayvon Mullen Jr., "Somebody's got to make a play."

The play ignited Las Vegas to an overtime win and 3-0 start.

"It just happened to be me," he said, calling it a read-and-react situation.

"I was trying to just do my job," Hayward said with another laugh. "Actually, I probably shouldn't have been there. So, it ended up being a good play for me, being in the right spot at the right time. I was just reacting, trying to make a play. I'm OK with that being the first reception. You know, get some points on the board for us. It's all right."

Hayward is far from the stereotypical preening cornerback in the mold of Deion Sanders, or a physical contemporary hitter like Jalen Ramsey.

Given the Raiders' heritage at the position, from Willie Brown to Lester Hayes to Mike Haynes to the underrated Terry McDaniel to Charles Woodson to Asomugha, Hayward is more self-deprecating.

He said "luck" has a lot to do with his success. Like on the safety.

He was "caught in between" where he was supposed to be on the play and, well, guessed right.

But when it comes to mentoring the Raiders' young cornerback corps, Hayward has not missed.

"What he is, is a true pro and he's someone they can bounce stuff off of," said Raiders defensive backs coach Ron Milus, who had Hayward with the Chargers from 2016 through 2020.

"Plus, he leads by example. Now, it's not always example; he'll tell them, 'Hey, that's not quite how we do it.' But Casey is a pro and I think that's what he brings to the table. The young guys have a chance to look at a guy ... that [has] done it before, and this is how you get it done."

Hayward started the season opposite Mullen, a second-round draft pick in 2019, and had taken to mentoring youngsters Damon Arnette, a first-rounder in 2020, Amik Robertson, a fourth-rounder in 2020, and Nate Hobbs, a fifth-rounder this year, as well as Keisean Nixon, an undrafted rookie in 2019.

But with Mullen and Arnette on injured reserve, the Raiders have had to bring in Brandon Facyson and Desmond Trufant in recent weeks.

"We've got a lot of guys on this defense that listen, myself included," Hayward said. "I don't know everything, so I tell the guys all the time, 'If you see anything I need to correct, let me know.'

"And I do the same thing for them."

Hayward, a second-round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers in 2012 who played as a rookie in the same secondary as Woodson, has been the constant. And at $2.5 million for the season, his might be the best bargain contract in the NFL. Yes, for a team that has thus far survived the shock of the early-season resignation of coach Jon Gruden, is 5-2, coming off its bye and heading to play the Giants under interim coach Rich Bisaccia.

"He's a good guy, he helps everyone," Mullen said of Hayward. "He's been in the system for a long time, so it's good to go to him and ask questions. He has a lot of knowledge on the defense and how to play certain routes in this scheme and how things will play out.

"He's a great leader."