Healthy Hayward hopes to boost Packers secondary
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
GREEN BAY--One by one, he lists the names. Casey Hayward envisions greatness in the Green Bay Packers’ secondary.
Sam Shields. Tramon Williams. Himself. Morgan Burnett. If everyone delivers, he says, “it’s going to be hard to debate” that the Packers’ defensive backs are the best in the NFL.
Then, he quickly notes that the Seattle Seahawks would have something to say about that.
“I think we definitely have a chance to be better than those guys,” Hayward said. “We’re going to take it one game at a time. We’re not going to claim a title yet. We have to go play.”
One locker over, Williams hears the conversation and chimes in.
“We’ll let you say who’s the best,” the veteran says to the reporter. “We aren’t going to talk.”
So, OK, hold off for now. But a healthy Hayward sure would be a leap in the right direction. The third-year cornerback is finally healthy after a cursed 2013 season. He learned his lesson the hard way—hamstrings need daily maintenance. Limited to 87 snaps a year ago, Hayward is doing everything in his power to prevent a repeat nightmare.
Three practices in, the Packers’ slot cornerback has resembled the Woodson Lite that totaled six interceptions and 25 pass breakups as a rookie in 2012.
“I just know what kind of valuable player I can be to this team,” Hayward said. “If I’m playing inside or outside, I feel I’m one of the playmakers on the team and I feel like I’m one of the better defensive players on the team.”
So, for starters, he needed to embrace what he dreaded as a kid. Needles. Hayward was never a fan of shots. To finely tune his hamstrings, the cornerback underwent “dry needling” over the offseason. Similar to acupuncture, dry needling helps release scar tissue within the muscle. So for six sessions in Atlanta—and Hayward will continue this in Green Bay—Hayward kept his face down and braced for the “little pokes” along the hamstring.
Each time, the 24-year-old feels a palpable release. Dry needling targets trigger points of pain, of tightness and keeps his hamstring loose.
Hayward isn’t into yoga, even though that’s precisely what has helped players such as Jarrett Bush combat hamstring issues. He is, however, stretching more, getting deep tissue massages once (and sometimes twice) a week and paying more attention to his glutes and hamstrings in the weight room. That means more lunges and isolated leg curls.
In the past, Hayward did leg lifts but wouldn’t zero in on his hamstrings.
That might have been one reason Hayward’s hamstring gave out in training before last year’s camp, again in a preseason game Aug. 23 against Seattle and then again Nov. 10 against Philadelphia. The Eagles game, Hayward notes, was easily the lowest low of his career.
This summer, Hayward gets his weightlifting in at 6:45 a.m. before the 8:20 a.m. practices—and he doesn’t neglect the hamstring.
Put it all together and he’s already seeing a difference.
The first day of practice, Hayward stuck with Andrew Quarless and Davante Adams deep for deflections and then broke up a third pass soon after. Pouncing on a route one day later, he nearly picked off Aaron Rodgers. The quarterback angled his pass perfectly outside to Adams.
“I definitely see the difference. I’m able to open up,” Hayward said. “The crazy thing about it is, I don’t feel like I’ve ever had to run 100% yet, because I try to put myself in good positions where I don’t have to. If anybody ever has to run 100%, they’re in trouble. You’re chasing if you have to run 100%.”
This is why, Hayward continued, he is able to jump routes.
“I’m not chasing,” he said. “I’m letting it come to me and going to get it instead of having to chase.”
Powerless in 2013, Hayward spent his time studying cornerbacks such as Cincinnati’s pesky Leon Hall. As maddening as the injury was, he believes it did force him to further understand “concepts.” Hayward points to Williams, and how the veteran’s sixth sense for routes led to four interceptions and nine breakups the final eight games.
Williams picked up “patterns,” knowing where the No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 receivers were cutting before they did it.
“Just trying to be a student of the game, that’s where you get your advantage on the person across from you,” Hayward said. “Because everybody’s got the talent here. So now you have to find a way to get an advantage.
“I definitely came back a better player and a better person and a better teammate.”
So far, no scares. Hayward has had no tweaks, no tears, only fleeting tightness through organized team activities in May. With Shields and Williams back, he has assumed his old nickel cornerback position.
Maybe, Hayward wonders aloud, sitting out last year somehow will tack on another season or two to his career.
He’s sure it thickened his skin. He’s positive it made him mature.
“I knew I’d have a lot of questions—how did this happen? How are you going to prevent this next year? It made me a tough player and a smarter player for this offseason,” Hayward said. “I knew where I could go and where I couldn’t with my training. So it made me a smarter person and a smarter pro.
“When you figure out things that work for you, you continue to do it. That’s what I did.”