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Casey Hayward’s sudden regression may change Chargers draft plans

I don’t want to believe it.

Los Angeles Chargers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The signing of cornerback Casey Hayward prior to the 2016 season quickly became regarded as one of Tom Telesco’s best moves as a general manager less than a year into the corner’s time with the Chargers.

In his first season in San Diego, Hayward recorded a career-high seven interceptions en route to leading the league in picks, making the Pro Bowl, and being named a Second-Team All-Pro.

The following season in 2017, Hayward doubled up on those accolades after picking off another four passes to lead the team for the second year in a row. Across that two-year span, Hayward also broke up a staggering 42 passes that came his way.

Since then, Hayward has just two interceptions to his name over the last two and a half seasons, both of which came in 2019. His PBU total is also just 22 in his past 40 games.

This season has quickly become Hayward’s worst in a Chargers uniform. According to Pro Football Reference, Hayward has been targeted 48 times this year. That’s the same amount he was targeted in all of 2019. He’s allowed exactly half of those targets to be completed for 393 yards and four touchdowns. For comparison’s sake, here are his coverage numbers through eight games this year next to his numbers from the entire 2018 and 2019 seasons:

As you can all see, Hayward’s been targeted at an alarming rate this season. The biggest takeaway from that could be the idea that Hayward is not being avoided like he once was. Opposing quarterbacks aren’t nearly as afraid to look his way, and he has not made them pay much at all. While his percentage of receptions allowed is actually better than previous seasons (50%), you can see above that he’s allowing a staggering amount of total yards, yards after catch, and yards per reception (16.4).

Hayward has never been the type of corner to win with speed. He started as a nickel corner with the Green bay Packers and won with his instincts and short-area quickness. After he signed with the Bolts, he continued to flourish with those traits in their zone-heavy scheme.

But the veteran is now 31 years old, and that’s especially alarming for those who play the cornerback position. I liken it to the same situation as when running backs hit 30. The drop-off there after is far and fast. As Father Time creeps up on the player we’ve all come to refer to as “Showcase,” it’s becoming more evident that his lack of long-speed is being exploited even more on an almost-weekly basis.

Coming into the NFL, Hayward ran a 4.57 in the forty-yard dash, along with elite numbers in the short shuttle (3.90) and the three-cone-drill (6.76). That 40 number is a rather worrisome number for a corner. If he ran that time at the most-recent combine, he would have finished tied for 22nd at the position.

In Sunday’s loss to the Raiders, Hayward was beaten over the top by wide receiver Nelson Agholor, who came into the NFL running a 4.42. Agholor isn’t a superstar by any means, so the touchdown allowed only further exemplified the veteran’s biggest shortcoming. While he only allowed two receptions on five targets against Las Vegas, those two catches went for 98 yards and the aforementioned score.

The final part we have to mention, that adds a bit more clarity to Hayward’s overall regression this season, is the fact that he’s struggling to bring down ball-carriers when he has the chance. In 2018 and 2019, Hayward missed a total of three and two total tackles, respectively. In just one half of the 2020 season, Hayward has missed seven tackles, including two against the Jaguars, with one of them allowing a James Robinson touchdown.

Look, Hayward has been one of the best cornerbacks of the last five years. He’s been a darling of Pro Football Focus (along with Desmond King) and many still consider him to be underrated. But I think that trend may finally be coming to an end. As the team continues towards another top-10 pick this coming April, the Chargers may be forced to use their pick on a cornerback if their most-experienced player at the position can’t turn things around in the second half of the season.