In 2013, Hayward couldn't get past a hamstring injury sustained before the start of training camp and aggravated during the preseason, and was limited to 88 snaps in three games. He failed to intercept a pass and broke up just one.
Still, Hayward disagreed with the notion that it was a "lost season." In fact, it might propel him to the next phase of his career.
"Lost? I wouldn't say lost, because I actually got to learn more," Hayward said after Tuesday's organized team activity. "I got to watch film, I got to critique our guys, critique other guys. I don't think it was lost. I think it made me become more of a student of the game than I was."
As a rookie, it didn't take long for Charles Woodson and Aaron Rodgers to take note of Hayward's high football intelligence. If Hayward can stay healthy and put to use what he learned during a not-quite-lost season, then who knows what could be in store this season.
"Mentally, the young man has been really sharp in the classroom and, even when he wasn't here, he was very, very active in the classroom," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said last week. "‘Guys this is what I see (and) this is how I would play it. This is how they run this combination. When they get in this formation ...' he was very active in that way. Mentally, he's right where he should be as a third-year player. Now, we just have to get those reps back and get the body moving that way. Hopefully, his (hamstring) and everything, that's an issue in the past."
Hayward's absence was painfully obvious and deeply impacted the team. Without him for most of 2013, only four teams had fewer interceptions than Green Bay's 11, and the Packers finished 25th with an interception rate of 2.04 percent. With Hayward hauling in all-rookie honors in 2012, only seven teams had more interceptions than Green Bay's 18, and the Packers finished ninth with an interception rate of 3.17 percent.
Green Bay's 11 interceptions — it's fewest since 2005 — were far below the average of 25.75 during defensive coordinator Dom Capers' first four seasons. The Packers, plus-65 in turnovers from 2009 through 2013, finished minus-3. That was its first season on the wrong side of the ledger since 2005.
Individually, interceptions can be a misleading figure. Terrell Buckley finished his career with 50 of them and nobody would consider him an elite defender. In 2012, however, Hayward led NFL cornerbacks with a passer rating allowed of 31.1, was third by yielding 44.6 percent completions and didn't allow a touchdown, according to ProFootballFocus.com. That is superior play.
Can Hayward duplicate his phenomenal 2012 season after barely playing in 2013?
"It's hard to just judge what you did before. You just try to get better than what you were," Hayward said. "Sometimes the picks don't matter, but I would love to get six-plus again, but if I'm shutting down my man and not giving up a lot of completions, not giving up a lot of touchdowns, tackling well, I think that'll show good on this defense and good on this team."
Of course, that's all dependent on his health. So far, so good on that front, but Hayward was confident he was healed last season, too, only for the hamstring issues to sideline him for good against Philadelphia.
"It feels good," he said. "I haven't been able to run in a while. So just getting back, coming back from OTAs, I was like, ‘If I can just get out there and be 90 percent, I'll be happy.' So, if I can get out there and be 90 percent, which I'm feeling great out there right now, if I can get to training camp and be 100 percent, I'll be fine. I'll be ready to go."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.