After a breakout year in 2012, in which Casey Hayward lead the Packers defense in both interceptions (6) and pass breakups (21), the second-year cornerback looks poised to improve on his rookie numbers.
Cornerback coach Joe Whitt Jr. made quite a comparison when talking about him in a press conference earlier this off-season:
This guy has a skill set that is very similar to Woodson, and that's rare. He can smell routes, see things, and do things that not many people can do. Now, what he has to learn how to do is catch the flash of the ball. That's one thing 'Wood' can do better than anybody, and Casey needs to continue to improve on that.
While it might seem unfair to compare a second-year player to a Heisman Trophy-winning cornerback and former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, it appears the coaching staff and organization believe the Vanderbilt stand-out can achieve similar successes while with the Green and Gold.
The Packers felt comfortable enough in their situation in the defensive backfield that they were willing to part ways with Woodson this past off-season, and didn't appear overly concerned when cornerback Sam Shields decided to skip a few OTAs due to contract negotiations. Hayward's breakout season in 2012 had a lot to do with both of these situations playing out the way they did.
Hayward has been getting rave reviews this off-season, and head coach Mike McCarthy believes Hayward's natural abilities will propel him to more production in 2013.
You can just see he's very comfortable out there (with) his instincts and his route recognition. He had a couple routes he jumped today. I look for him to be a much better player in year two.
Casey Hayward is just a natural football player. He is exceptional in that it comes very natural to him. He's very fluid in everything he does, hand-eye coordination, and excellent hands.
If the Packers defense can produce an improved pass rush in front of Hayward with the addition of a healthy Nick Perry and rookie defensive end Datone Jones, and combine that with improved play from the young safety group behind him, I wouldn't be surprised if Hayward threatens to record double digit interceptions this fall.
It's a lofty goal, but I believe Hayward has shown enough natural ability as a ball-hawking defensive back in his rookie season that he will only improve after a full off-season of drills and film study. Much like the coaching staff, I expect big things from #29 this season. He finished with 53 tackles, 21 pass breakups, six interceptions, and one forced fumble last season.
I expect him to be more of a play-maker this fall, and finish with something along the lines of 70 tackles, 20 pass breakups, nine interceptions, and four forced fumbles. I'm not sure he'll reach double digit picks (something that hasn't been done since Antonio Cromartie in 2007), but I think he'll come close.
With experience comes confidence, and I believe Hayward will flourish within the Dom Capers system in year two of his career.