The "feel-good" story of the 2013 NFL Draft, as labeled by the NFL, and the fastest riser among the prospects are one-in-the-same person.
Meet D.J. Hayden, the cornerback that nearly died in November, garnered very little attention in the first stages of the predraft process while he was recovering from his life-threatening injury and now might be gone before the Minnesota Vikings ever have a shot at drafting a cornerback – a position of need – in the first round.
The analysts and scouts all seem to agree on Hayden's rise among NFL teams. NFL scout Dave-Te' Thomas believes Hayden will be selected in the second round. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has Hayden being selected at the end of the first round. But the biggest statement came from perhaps the most understated analyst, Mike Mayock of NFL Network.
Mayock not only has Hayden now rated as a first-round prospect, he has him as his top cornerback, ahead of Dee Milliner, who was the consensus top cornerback in the draft throughout the predraft process.
"He finds the football and what I like about him is once he finds it he turns into a running back. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns last year," Mayock said Thursday. "Whether he's in press (coverage) with his back to the quarterback or in off with his eyes on the quarterback, he finds the football and makes a play on it. So I really like those players."
The "feel-good" portion of Hayden's rise is the result of his recovery from a torn vein that transports blood from the lower half of the body to the heart. The injury occurred during a practice at the University of Houston when Hayden collided with a safety while they were trying to break up a pass.
The injury is fatal in 95 percent of the victims, according to Walter Lowe, the University of Houston's team doctor. In most cases, that injury is sustained during motor vehicle accidents.
In the span of four months, Hayden has gone from critically injured to a critically acclaimed prospect. Mayock has him rated as the No. 14 overall prospect in the draft, despite the medical concerns that have now apparently been alleviated.
"I think as horrific as that whole thing was, I think most of the teams have come to the conclusion that it was a once-in-a-gazillion situation that has no more chance of being replicated than it did in the first place. For the most part, he's getting the bill of health," Mayock said. "I think there's some residual concerns whether he'll be the same player after a near-death type of collision. And that's a legitimate question to ask. However, if you assume – and I think most teams are – that this kid's going to be who he was, then the next question is what did he run because the tape is great and he ran at his pro day before he pulled his (hamstring) and ran in that 4.38 to 4.42 range, depending on who you talk to."
According to Thomas, Hayden was clocked running a 4.33-second 40-yard dash on a hand-held timer at his pro day on March 18. He also had a 33½-inch vertical jump and 10-foot broad jump.
"(Scouts) got down there for his pro day and everybody's eyes just bugged out of their head," Thomas said. "Right now, he appears to be a solid two. I know Tampa Bay, Miami, the Raiders, Seattle, they've all been coveting this guy."
Said Mayock: "The two big issues I think were speed and medical, and I think they've both been erased. And if that's the case and you've got him on your board as a top-20 type of guy, which I do, I'm not sure who's going to take him, but when you're going right down the list and seeing who needs a corner and where, I think it starts somewhere around Tennessee and continues through Tampa Bay and Carolina, so it starts around 10 and goes up until 20, 21 and I think he's off the board at that point."
The Vikings have picks No. 23 and 25 in the first round, with a report that they are looking to trade up.
After going to junior college, Hayden started 21 of 22 games at Houston, recording 127 tackles, including 9.5 for losses, three fumble recoveries and six forced fumbles. He also had 19 passes defensed. He returned three of his six interceptions for touchdowns, tying the school's career record in only two years.
"Hayden has a great story to have come back from the life-threatening situation to get himself back in the late first-round discussion," Kiper said. "Good cover guy, not a great tackler, not great at support, but a real good cover guy, and in this league that's what you need."
For this draft, he's also one of the top stories of overcoming adversity.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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