With 1:25 left in the third quarter of Sunday's game between the St. Louis Rams and the Green Bay Packers, St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford tossed a bomb down the left sideline intended for wide receiver Chris Givens.
Givens was running slightly ahead of Green Bay cornerback Casey Hayward, but because Bradford underthrew the ball, Hayward was in perfect position to turn and pick off the pass. It was Hayward's fourth interception of the year, tied for the most in the NFL. That statistic is impressive not just because Hayward is a rookie, but because Sunday's game was Hayward's first career start.
"They’re still going to throw the ball," Hayward said after Sunday's game. "They don’t care. They don’t care if you’re a rookie or a veteran. They’re going to throw the ball at you and you just have to be in a position to make plays."
Getting in a position to make interceptions has been Hayward's speciality since making the switch from high school quarterback to college cornerback. Despite a spectacular senior year at Perry High School in central Georgia, in which Hayward tallied 18 passing touchdowns, 18 rushing touchdowns and three interceptions returned for touchdowns, Vanderbilt was the only BCS school to offer Hayward a scholarship.
The 5-foot-11, 190 pound Hayward got on the field as a true freshman before going on to start every game over his final three years. As a senior he earned All-American honors, the first Vanderbilt player to be recognized as an All American in four years, and his 15 career interceptions are tied for the most in school history.
As he prepared for the NFL, Hayward was held back by his mediocre speed. His 4.57 40 time at the NFL Combine was nothing special, and many wondered whether he would be able to keep up with receivers at the professional level. Concerns about his speed dropped him to the end of the second round, where Hayward was the 62nd overall pick and the fifth cornerback selected.
Hayward came into a crowded defensive backfield in Green Bay, and he understood that it might take a while for him to consistently see the field. But as it turned out, the Packers needed Hayward to produce immediately.
Green Bay's secondary has been in transition during the first half of the season, with Charles Woodson moving to safety, Davon House missing the first six games of the season with a shoulder injury and Sam Shields suffering shin and ankle injuries against Houston. Hayward got the start in Shields' place against St. Louis on Sunday, and he did not disappoint. Despite his expanded role, Hayward filled in nicely, recording the game's only interception to go along with three tackles.
"He’s a young guy that has tremendous ball skills," Woodson told the Green Bay Press-Gazette. "You see him when that ball’s in the air, he’s always in good position to get that ball. So we felt like with him having that type of game, he’d be all right."
While Hayward has performed well thus far, his fate for the rest of the season may be out of his hands. Sam Shields will likely return at some point over the next few weeks, and now that House is back and Hayward is heating up, competition to start opposite Tramon Williams is intense.
But Hayward knows this much: there's not much more he could have done to show defensive coordinator Dom Capers that he belongs
"They wanted to see how I could do with the starters, and I did well," b>Hayward said after Sunday's game. "But we have a lot of good corners. Whenever you get your opportunity, you’ve got to take advantage of it because I feel like all these guys can go out here and play."