OAKLAND D.J. Hayden finally gets the chance to answer the critics who thought the Raiders made a risky bet when they drafted him 12th overall in April.
The cornerback will make his exhibition debut for Oakland tonight 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 NFL future.
Hayden has been limited for 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 in a game Nov. 3 for Houston against East Carolina. He was injured days later when he collided with a teammate at practice.
Hayden 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, according to doctors, and 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 early even though some teams believed he was too much of a risk.
The Raiders have been pleased with the pick and now will 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 participate in warmups and wear his uniform last 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 telling 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 also will play. That means the Raiders will be close to full strength on defense, except for defensive tackle Pat Sims and cornerback Tracy Porter.
The Raiders' defense should get a good test against Jay Cutler and Chicago's first-team offense. Hayden will match up at times with one of the NFL's most prolific receivers in Brandon Marshall, who had 118 catches last season.
Marshall was targeted on more than 40 percent of Chicago's throws last season. The Bears are looking to prove they have more options on offense than Marshall and running back Matt Forte this year with second-year wide 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.
"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 of a sample size to draw any conclusions.
"I just think it's the way the cookie crumbles sometimes," Bennett said. "I mean, we haven't played a full game yet."