ALAMEDA (CBS/AP) — Darrius Heyward-Bey has been the target of criticism ever since the Oakland Raiders surprisingly drafted him seventh overall in 2009 ahead of more accomplished receivers.
After two lackluster, drop-filled seasons to start his career, Heyward-Bey is finally showing some signs of what the Raiders saw in him coming out of college.
Heyward-Bey is coming off the best game of his young career. He had eight catches for 155 yards and a touchdown in last week’s loss to Detroit—the most yardage for a Raiders wide receiver since Jerry Rice in 2003.
He doesn’t see games like that as vindication.
“I don’t care about what critics say. All I care about is me, and my teammates and my coaches, that’s all I care about,” Heyward-Bey said. “To me it’s just been building. You could look at certain games or a certain play where I felt like OK, but other than that I think it was a steady progress forward.”
While his 51 catches for 775 yards are more than his combined total from his first two seasons and the most yards receiving for any Raiders wideout since Randy Moss topped 1,000 yards in 2005, he still lags behind some of the receivers picked behind him in his draft class, including Percy Harvin (72 for 787), Hakeem Nicks (70 for 1,096) and Mike Wallace (67 for 1,100).
But his numbers are very similar to those of the player most pundits thought the Raiders should have taken with that pick, Michael Crabtree, who has 59 catches for 703 yards for San Francisco.
But there are still some of the lapses that plagued him his first two seasons, including a fumble that killed a potential scoring drive and a late dropped pass against the Lions.
“I’ve seen steady progress,” coach Hue Jackson said. “I told you guys at some point in time it was going to just go this way, because the guy works extremely hard. He’s a talented player. Last game, he was very close to being the player of the game, if you don’t fumble it. Obviously he had a sensational game, so something he’s got to continue to work on. But he’s getting closer, he’s working hard, he’s gotten better and his numbers speak for themselves.”
After catching just nine of 40 passes thrown his way as a rookie and 26 of 65 a year ago, Heyward-Bey has become a reliable option for quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Jason Campbell this season. He has caught 51 of 91 balls thrown his way, 56 percent, up from a horrid 33.3 percent his first two seasons.
The difference in Heyward-Bey’s performance this season has been starkly obvious to his opponents. Perhaps his lowest moment as a rookie came against Kansas City, when he allowed a pass to bounce off his hands, fall to his knees and deflect right to Mike Brown for a game-sealing interception with the Raiders driving for the winning score.
“He looks more confident in himself and in his hands,” Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers said. “Before, it was like he was trying to do too much, he was trying to concentrate too hard when he was catching the ball instead of just relaxing and playing like he did in college when he was making all types of plays. But I feel like the game slowed down for him, he gets very relaxed out there and he’s growing into his own as an NFL receiver.”
The next step for Heyward-Bey is to use that game-breaking speed that helped him become such a high pick to become a deep threat in the passing game.
Most of Heyward-Bey’s success this season has come on short and intermediate routes, where he can use his size to create space and then has the ability to run after the catch.
Deep balls have been a different case as he struggles to get open down the field despite his speed and still has trouble adjusting to the ball in the air.
“When he starts making those uncommon plays that we all know that you look for at that position, that’s when he’s arrived,” Jackson said. “ He hasn’t arrived yet, regardless of what the numbers are, but he’s still working. But I think the sky’s the limit for him if he continues to work like he is.”
The Raiders have attempted 15 deep passes in his direction this season with the only completion coming in a Week 4 loss to New England.
Palmer said part of the problem is that opponents fear his speed so much that they play off Heyward-Bey. Palmer believes that connecting on more of the shorter routes should open up the deep ball.
“Everybody knows he can run,” Palmer said. “He’s not going to sneak up on anybody and people just turn and run and do a good job of taking away the deep stuff because they know that’s something that’s very difficult to cover.”
Notes: RB Taiwan Jones practiced for a second straight day as he recovers from a hamstring injury. … RB Darren McFadden (right foot), S Michael Huff (hamstring) and WR Jacoby Ford (left foot) all remained sidelined with injuries.
(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)