At three times last season, Hayward’s hamstring slowed his progress. He first injured it during offseason training headed into training camp. Then, he aggravated it in a preseason game. And finally, after returning for Week 8 of the regular season, he injured it again during a Week 10 game against the Philadelphia Eagles, forcing him to shut down his season for good. The Packers placed him on injured reserve Nov. 23.
All told, Hayward played in just three games. This coming after he challenged for the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year honor in 2012 after playing in 16 games with seven starts.
The difference in the defensive backfield for the Packers was noticeable. Perhaps that was the reason defensive coordinator Dom Capers gave Hayward a friendly reminder on his way out the door following the Packers’ minicamp in June.
“Right before we left, we were in there eating, and he was like, ‘All right now, don’t go out there and pull a hamstring before we get going,’” said Hayward. “We just joked and laughed, ‘Not this year.’”
So far, so good. Three practices into training camp, Hayward looks much closer to his rookie form than his 2013 form. Everything, really, seemed to kick in for him a couple weeks ago.
“I had been dry needling back in Atlanta from one of the doctors that I’ve been going to,” said Hayward. “(The hamstring) had been feeling great working out back in Atlanta. I’m feeling like close to really 100 percent now, and I feel great right now going out there the last three days.
“I’m able to go out there and do the special teams at full speed, go out there and play at full speed. Know all the plays. Everything feels pretty natural.”
Added coach Mike McCarthy after the opening practice Saturday, “He’s back. So instinctive, his balls skills. You saw him jump off the spot a few times and make a play.”
What Micah Hyde is to the safety position for the Packers, Hayward is to the cornerback group. That is, a versatile player that the Packers can move around almost anywhere in the secondary. What both players may lack in physical skills they make up for by playing multiple positions at a high level.
Asked Monday after practice what role he likes playing best on the Packers’ defense, Hayward said, “Being on the field. That’s my favorite role. Anytime I can just be on the field as long as possible. If they need me to play outside or inside, I’m just ready for all roles, and I think it’s just making me a better player because I’m versatile. I can play inside, outside, playing in the box, playing outside the box. I just think it’s going to make me a more valuable player.”
During a standout rookie campaign in 2012, Hayward eventually settled into the slot cornerback spot for the Packers. But of his team- and rookie-leading six interceptions, only two came from the covering the slot receiver. So, Hayward has the ability to play outside, as well, and has been getting opportunities there in camp, even though the Packers are all but set with veterans Tramon Williams and Sam Shields.
“This is probably the most that I’ve been outside,” said Hayward. “(They’re) just giving me an opportunity to really work outside because you just never know what happens with injuries or anything. (They) know what kind of player I am. (They) know I can play inside and outside, and I’m showing that right now at camp.”
Because he hardly played last season (just 88 snaps total), Hayward is treating this camp like his first. He is not only getting back physically but mentally, too.
“I know what kind of a player I was my rookie year and what kind of player I want to progress to be,” said Hayward, who was No. 3 on Packer Report’s most important Packers list behind only Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews. “So, I think just going out there and playing and actually seeing it, seeing it on film, just being a student of the game is going to actually help me be a better player and try to come back and be one of those elite corners.
“Playing very fast, that’s the main goal. And being confident. And you can see it in my game.”
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org