JACKSONVILLE – His role is specific, with no room for confusion.
That's fine with D.J. Hayden – more than fine, actually.
"Just tell me what I need to do: I'm here to under-promise and over-deliver," Hayden said this week as Jaguars 2018 Training Camp continued.
That's Hayden's approach – that of a professional with five seasons NFL experience. That's an important part of Hayden's '18 camp story. And make no mistake:
That story is critical for the Jaguars entering '18 camp.
Hayden, a sixth-year NFL veteran, is the team's new nickel back. He signed as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason to replace Aaron Colvin in the role.
Fitting into one of the NFL's best secondaries …
Replacing one of the NFL's best nickel backs …
Hayden's task is as difficult as it is clear, and it's critical one for a defense many expect to be one of the best in the NFL. The verdict? So far, so good.
"I think he's going to fit perfect into this 'Jackson 5' mix," safety Tashaun Gipson said this week.
The fitting-in part is Hayden's first task, and it's significant. The Jaguars' secondary – All-Pro corners Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, playmaking safeties Barry Church and Gipson – was perhaps the NFL's best last season. But when that group spoke of themselves, they talked not of a foursome but of a five-player group – The Jackson 5 – that very much included Colvin.
Colvin was an aggressive tackler, capable of impacting the pass rush with a well-timed blitz and capable of covering a slot receiver. His presence was a big reason the group was considered among the league's best, and the unit's closeness and cohesion were evident throughout last season.
Came the '18 offseason …
Exit Colvin, who signed with the Houston Texans as an unrestricted free agent.
Enter Hayden, the No. 12 overall selection by the Oakland Raiders in 2013 NFL Draft who started 26 games in five NFL seasons with three interceptions and 35 passes defensed.
Hayden said he spent time in the offseason studying the Jaguars' pass defense, and he also studied how Colvin approached the position. But he said he won't try to be Colvin, or to necessarily play like him.
"I see what they want out of the nickel spot, but I'm going to put my twist on things," Hayden said.
Hayden, who played collegiately at Houston, played four seasons with the Raiders, then played with the Detroit Lions last season. He said the Jaguars' scheme is similar to that he played in Oakland, where he also played extensively at nickel.
The Jaguars feel good about Hayden, as evidenced by the three-year deal he signed in March for $19 million. And early reports from teammates in camp are good.
"I like him; I think that one thing he has is speed," Gipson said this week. "He has speed to burn, and this defense – the way that we play – you are going to need speed. One of the things that we have yet to see, but you can tell that he is a physical guy. Being able to tackle is going to be huge. A.C., in my opinion, I felt like he was one of the better tackling cornerbacks in the league and that paid dividends for us in that slot.
"Obviously, when we get live and things going, we are going to be able to tell a lot more about D.J. Hayden, but I like his game."
The belief within the Jaguars is Hayden is a very capable outside corner, and that he can fill in well as a backup if either Bouye or Ramsey – each of whom started 16 games last season – is injured.
But nickel is the unquestioned focus, and Hayden discussed that role as he left a padded practice at the Dream Finders Homes Practice Complex this week.
"It's like I'm an extra linebacker, basically," Hayden said. "You've got to be in sync with the linebackers, and sometimes you have to work together on certain coverage. You have to learn where you're help is and where it isn't.
"It's about figuring out what they like to play and where they like to play it."
And that will continue to be Hayden's task in the coming weeks, one he will approach knowing full well his role in the defense.
"When I was coming in here, they told me they were bringing me in to be the third corner, to be the nickel," Hayden said. "That's what I'm going to do. That's what I'm going to excel at. I'm excited. I'm excited for this first game coming up. I'm ready to get out there and ball out."