GREEN BAY - Joe Whitt could've simply stopped with his initial reaction. That said plenty.
The Green Bay Packers cornerbacks coach had just been asked how Casey Hayward had looked so far this offseason – through individual position workouts and only a couple of organized team activity practices – and the first word out of his mouth wasn't really a word.
"Ooooooooh," Whitt replied.
To understand Whitt's reaction, you must rewind to this time last year, when Hayward was coming off a rookie season in which he'd intercepted six passes and finished third in the NFL defensive rookie of the year balloting. Coaches love to talk about the importance of young players making a significant jump from Year 1 to Year 2, and based on what he'd seen from the second-round pick from Vanderbilt, Whitt was expecting even bigger and better things from Hayward.
Instead, what he got was a lost season from his prized pupil.
Perhaps that's why Whitt was only getting started with his reply.
"Casey has looked really nice," Whitt continued. "We've worked some new stuff. With the new stuff, I really didn't think he'd be a guy who'd benefit from it. But he really has and he's looked really nice."
Asked how his hamstring has felt so far this offseason, Hayward replied, "It feels good. I haven't been able to run in a while. So just getting back, coming back (for) OTAs, I was like, ‘If I can just get out there and be 90 percent, I'll be happy.' Which, I'm feeling great out there right now. If I can get to training camp and be 100 percent, I'll be fine. I'll be ready to go."
The Packers' defense would be significantly better if he is.
During his rookie season, Hayward played primarily inside as the nickel back covering slot receivers. But the coaches have always felt he could play outside, too, and during the first two open oTA practices, he has worked both inside and outside. While the Sept. 4 opener is still three months away, the Packers are excited about a dime package that would feature Tramon Williams and Sam Shields as the outside corners and Hayward and Micah Hyde, who took Hayward's place last season, as the nickel and dime guys.
Hayward's ability to move outside, which he did while Shields was sidelined with a sprained ankle in 2012, gives defensive coordinator Dom Capers greater flexibility, which fits the Packers' mantra this offseason on defense. As coach Mike McCarthy said again earlier this week, "The ability to play as many defensive players as possible is a primary focus for us."
Hayward's problems began when he initially pulled his hamstring just before reporting to training camp last July. He missed the first few weeks of camp and the first two preseason games before debuting against Seattle at Lambeau Field on Aug. 23 and even had an interception in that game – only to re-pull the hamstring after about a dozen snaps.
Hayward sat out the first six regular-season games, then played 23 snaps at Minnesota on Oct. 27, played 42 snaps the following week against Chicago and then re-injured the hamstring yet again against Philadelphia on Nov. 10. He was inactive the next week against the New York Giants before the coaching and medical staffs shut him down for the year, placing him on injured reserve.
"He looks like he's back and healthy, and he's out there working," Capers said. "It's nice to see him back out there because this is a guy who intercepted six passes the year before."
For a team that had only 22 takeaways last year, getting a playmaker like Hayward back would be a huge lift. But to his credit, while sidelined last year, Hayward didn't spend all his time in the training room or disappear by heading home. Rather, he was in every cornerbacks meeting and defensive meeting, working on learning the defense better and helping his teammates any way he could.
"Mentally, the young man has been really sharp in the classroom and even when he wasn't [playing], he was very, very active in the classroom," Whitt said. "[He'd say], ‘Guys this is what I see – this is how I would play it. This is how they run this combination. When they get in this formation …' He was very active in that way.
"Mentally, he's right where he should be as a third-year player. Now we just have to get those reps back and get the body moving that way. Hopefully, his ham(string) and everything, that's an issue in the past."
Hayward certainly believes that, and believes he's more than ready to have an even greater impact than he had as a rookie.
"I'm going on Year 3. I know the defense, I know the players around me and the players know me," Hayward said. "It's hard to just judge what you did before; you just try to get better than what you were. Sometimes the picks don't matter, but I would love to get 6-plus again, but if I'm shutting down my man and not giving up a lot of completions, not giving up a lot of touchdowns, tackling well, I think that'll show good on this defense and good on this team."
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "Green & Gold Today," and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.
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