D.J. Hayden finally gets the chance to answer the critics who thought the Oakland Raiders made a risky bet when they drafted him 12th overall in April.
Hayden will make his exhibition debut for Oakland on Friday night against the Chicago Bears in his first game action of any kind since a near-fatal practice collision ended his college career last November and raised questions about his future in the NFL.
Hayden has been limited most of training camp after undergoing abdominal surgery in May to heal scarring from the original injury. He was not cleared for any contact until last Friday and has had just one padded practice before taking the field against the Bears.
"I'm looking forward to my first NFL game. Can't wait to get out there and play," Hayden said. "I want to go ahead and shake the rust off. Get wet a little bit. Can't wait."
Hayden last played a game Nov. 3 for Houston against East Carolina. He was injured days later when he collided with a teammate at practice.
He was rushed into surgery for a tear of the inferior vena cava, the large vein that carries blood from the lower half of the body to the heart. The injury is 95 percent fatal in the field, according to doctors, and is most commonly associated with high-speed motor vehicle accidents.
Hayden worked his way back to health and was cleared by doctors before the draft. The Raiders selected him 12th overall even though some teams believed he was too much of a risk.
The Raiders have been pleased with the pick and now get to see how Hayden performs when he starts against the Bears.
"I just want to see him play football," coach Dennis Allen said. "It's been a while since he's really had an opportunity to go out and play real football. I'm looking forward to watching him. He's done some really good things in this camp. He's got exceptional coverage skills. I think everyone is anxious to see when he has his first real live contact."
Hayden will wear an extra flap over his chest for added protection despite his complaints that it makes him look like he has a beer belly.
He was allowed to take part in warmups and wear his uniform last Friday night in New Orleans but couldn't play even though he felt ready.
"They teased me a little bit," he said. "It's like putting some cookies in front of a kid and tell him, 'you can't eat them, but look at them.' But I'm all right."
Hayden isn't the only Raiders defender making his first exhibition appearance of the summer. Defensive end Lamarr Houston and defensive tackle Vance Walker will also play. That means the Raiders will be close to full strength on defense, with the exception of defensive tackle Pat Sims and cornerback Tracy Porter.
The Raiders defense should get a good test against Jay Cutler and the first-team offense for the Chicago Bears. Hayden will match up at times with one of the NFL's most prolific receivers in Brandon Marshall, who had 119 catches last season.
Marshall was targeted on more than 40 percent of Chicago's throws a year ago and the Bears are looking to prove they have more options on offense than Marshall and running back Matt Forte this year with second-year receiver Alshon Jeffery and free agent tight end Martellus Bennett.
Cutler threw all five of his passes toward Marshall last week against San Diego, completing four of them.
"We're going to spread it around," Cutler said. "We can't just throw to Brandon and give the ball to Matt. We've got to figure out ways to get other guys involved. We had plays up, some of them worked, some of them got checked out of. So, it is just the way it goes."
Bennett, who had 55 catches last year with the Giants, said two abbreviated preseason games for the first-team offense is too small a sample size to draw any conclusions from.
"I just think it's the way the cookie crumbles sometimes," Bennett said. "I mean, we haven't played a full game yet. There'd be some quarters where Brandon might catch eight balls in the first half, and then the second half they might double him, I might catch eight or Alshon might catch eight. We haven't played a full game of football yet."
AP NFL Website: www.pro32.ap.org
AP Sports Writer Andrew Seligman in Chicago contributed to this report.