Most followers of the Chicago Bears will point to Henry Melton's ACL tear in Week 3 last season as the moment when things began to spiral out of control on defense. Melton's injury was followed by a host of other maladies, resulting in arguably the worst defensive performance in franchise history.
Yet those who point to Melton as the futility catalyst are forgetting that Kelvin Hayden, who entered the 2013 campaign as the club's nickelback, was the first starter felled by injury. During training camp, before the Bears had even played a preseason contest, Hayden tore his hamstring on Family Night at Soldier Field and was lost for the season.
On March 11, Hayden will enter free agency for the fourth straight offseason. Should GM Phil Emery take another chance on the nine-year veteran, who turns 31 in July? We break down the pros and cons.
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Hayden is an experienced cornerback who has played in 101 career contests. He has starting experience out wide and in the slot. In zone coverage, Hayden is at his best, particularly in Cover 2, the system in which he's played for most of his career. He's aggressive against the run and is capable of applying pressure as a blitzer as well.
In 2012, he had one interception, five pass breakups and four fumble recoveries. According to Pro Football Focus, receivers caught 59.3 percent of passes thrown to Hayden's coverage in 2012, which was nearly four points better than Charles Tillman, who earned his second straight trip to the Pro Bowl that year.
While Hayden has a lot of NFL games under his belt, he's never been more than an average cornerback. In 2012, opposing quarterbacks had a 93.2 QB rating when throwing at Hayden, a year in which he gave up three touchdowns and missed seven tackles. He's got a lot of experience but overall, his production in the NFL (12 total interceptions in 101 career games) has been nothing special.
He'll turn 31 this offseason, he's coming off a lost year due to injury and he's played a full 16-game slate in just two seasons since 2007. Hayden will be risky going forward.
Hold ‘em or Fold ‘em
In Hayden's place last year, the team turned to second-year cornerback Isaiah Frey, who spent his rookie year on the practice squad. Frey wasn't horrible but his inexperience showed. He finished with a 76.1 completion percentage against, with opposing QBs tallying a 113.3 passer rating when throwing at him, both of which were worst on the team last year. Frey has a lot of potential but the jury is still out as to whether or not he's the club's slot corner of the future.
That said, it makes sense to bring back Hayden for at least one more season. Hayden can help further Frey's development, while serving as one of the few veterans likely to be on Chicago's "younger" defense next season.
Additionally, Hayden will not be in a position to command more money than the veteran minimum ($855,000) next year. While he's a risk, he's a cheap risk, and for a team that won't have a lot of spending money under the cap, Hayden is the type of player the Bears need.
I have been told that Emery would like to re-sign Hayden this offseason. So unless another team offers him a boatload of money – which is highly unlikely considering his age, injury history and the free-agency depth at cornerback – it appears Hayden will be back in Chicago for at least one more season. If the Bears re-sign him, he can fight it out with Frey in training camp, with the best man emerging as the team's starting slot corner.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is entering his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.