Hayward Capable of Filling Woodson's Shoes

As tough as it is to see Charles Woodson's talents go, the Packers are fortunate to have a guy like Casey Hayward. Through making plays or his pregame ritual, Hayward is a guy who fits in nicely headed into his second season.

Every game starts the same thoughtful way for Casey Hayward.

Just before kickoff, the defensive back makes his way up and down the Green Bay Packers' bench, sending his well wishes to as many teammates and coaches as possible.

A handshake here.

A fist bump there.

A quick hug as the referee winds the play clock.

"Oh, yeah, I just go around and tell everyone ‘good luck' and ‘stay healthy,'" said Hayward. "Just to show everybody love. Just to make sure everybody stays healthy. ‘God bless' and things like that. There's no other reason for doing it."

The ritual is one shared by other teammates, as well. But with Hayward, it carries a little more weight. Just a rookie a season ago, he hardly acted like it.

"That's one thing you saw from his college film. He was constantly bringing his teammates up," said Packers defensive backs coach Joe Whitt late last season. "And that's one thing – he was always bringing positive energy. And like we said, along with A.J. (Hawk) and Morgan (Burnett), he's one of the best communicators on the defense as a rookie. You really don't see that. He doesn't sit back and say, ‘OK, I'm a rookie, I can't be a leader.' He knows he can be because he's very confident in himself, he's confident in his abilities, and he shows his teammates confidence because he gets things right in practice. And once they know you're going to do it the right way, they will listen and follow you. That's one thing he's taken and done. I've been impressed with the ability to do that at such a young age."

As a second-round draft pick out of Vanderbilt, Hayward burst onto the scene as a defensive rookie of the year candidate in 2012. His six interceptions and 25 passes defended (according to team statistics) led the Packers. With former defensive player of the year Charles Woodson out for much of the season due to a broken collarbone, Hayward established himself as one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league.

With Woodson now gone (the Packers released him in February), Hayward would figure to man the slot cornerback spot again. But this time, he might garner a bigger leadership role in the secondary lost by the departure of Woodson.

"He's a smart kid," said Woodson of Hayward late last season. "I mean, I think that's the one thing that he has that helps him out. He understands the game and he has great instincts. Those are the things that together make him truly special."

When Whitt reviews film of college defensive backs the Packers might be interested in, he takes what he calls "post-play demeanor" into account for his evaluation. He noticed that Hayward at Vanderbilt was constantly tapping his teammates on the butt for encouragement or helping them off the ground when they missed a tackle. He also took note of the energy Hayward brought and how he communicated with his teammates both pre- and post-snap.

"I look at all of that because I think that's important," said Whitt. "Especially for the role that we were going to ask him to play as the nickel, as a communicator, as a facilitator for the defense."

While it would be difficult to imagine Hayward having a better season in 2013 than his rookie year, it would be equally difficult to imagine him having a season any worse. Packers' coaches shun any sophomore slump talk, instead living by the mantra that their players make the biggest jump in improvement from the first year to the second year after going through a full off-season program.

In the shadows of other veteran defensive backs at the start of his first training camp, Hayward will be at the forefront then when this camp opens July 26. Expect the same Hayward, right down to his pre-kickoff ritual.

"It's more about action, I think," Hayward responded last season when asked what makes a good leader. "Not a lot of talk. We've got a lot of leaders on this team that don't even talk too much, but they go out there and do nothing but what they say they're going to do. And that's go out there and play hard. There's a lot of different characteristics of leaders.

"I just try to come out here and be who I am. I'm not trying to be a leader of this team yet. I know it takes a while for people to respect you in this profession. So, I just go out there and try to do my job and if becoming a leader down the road comes, that will be a plus."

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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com

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