ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) DJ Hayden's career over the past four seasons has pretty much mirrored that of the Oakland Raiders, the only NFL team he's played for.
After a lengthy stretch of lean years that lasted more than a decade the Raiders are 6-2 and tied with the Denver Broncos heading into Sunday night's game between the two AFC West co-leaders.
Likewise, Hayden also appears to have put his own individual rocky past behind and is emerging as an integral cog in Oakland's secondary this season.
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The 12th overall pick in 2013, Hayden had been used almost exclusively in the Raiders' nickel defense but had to pull double duty on the outside last week when starting cornerback Sean Smith was injured on the second play from scrimmage in Oakland's overtime win against Tampa Bay.
''I'm pretty comfortable because that's what I've been doing pretty much my whole life,'' Hayden said Thursday. ''That's what the team needed me to do, come play nickel and corner.''
While he was beaten for a touchdown, Hayden played all but two snaps against the Bucs, allowed only two catches on the six passes thrown his direction.
''(He is) really clear on what his job is and what his responsibility is and it really shows in his confidence,'' Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said. ''The way he carries himself, the way he plays, the way he's making plays . there's no question he's really doing a great job of helping us.''
Smith returned to practice Thursday after sitting out a day earlier with a shoulder injury but was limited to individual drills during the 30-minute media access window. His status for Sunday's game is uncertain.
If Smith - one of the Raiders' top free agent signings in the offseason - is unable to play against Denver, Hayden is likely to start in his place. Hayden replaced Smith in Oakland's base defense after Smith went out but moved inside to defend the slot when the Raiders went to their nickel while TJ Carrie lined up at cornerback.
Oakland's much-maligned pass defense limited Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston to 180 yards, the fewest allowed by the Raiders this season. They also forced three-and-outs both times the Bucs had the ball in overtime, setting the stage for quarterback Derek Carr's game-winning 41-yard touchdown pass to Seth Roberts.
''We had a great time out there,'' Hayden said. ''There's some stuff we could have done better but we played a pretty good game . especially in overtime. I thought we played really good in overtime.''
That hasn't always been the case for Hayden, who struggled with injuries and had problems covering bigger receivers as a starting cornerback during his first few seasons in the NFL. Hayden's career with the Raiders appeared to be at a crossroads when the team declined to pick up the option year on his contract this offseason then asked him to move inside to defend the slot.
After a slow start both for Hayden and Oakland's defense, both seem to be settling into a much more comfortable groove now.
''It's not what I see on film, it's how I'm playing, how we're all playing, how we all feel out there,'' Hayden said. ''I feel like I'm playing better but still, the season ain't over yet. Still gotta do work.''
As Hayden is quick to point out, that goes for the Raiders as a team as well. Oakland won just seven games in Hayden's first two seasons then matched that by going 7-9 in 2015. With six wins already this season, the outlook is drastically different than it has been but the job is only half-finished.
''I'll wait until after the season to appreciate it but when I was younger we were rough,'' Hayden said. ''It feels good but there's still a lot of work out there to do and we have to finish out.''
Notes: Center Rodney Hudson (knee) and left guard Kelechi Osemele (knee) were also limited after sitting out Wednesday. Wide receiver Amari Cooper (back) and fullback Jamize Olawale (ankle) were limited as well.
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