Some $38 million and change later, can we agree Darrius Heyward-Bey is not a bust?
It’s an over-used term in the draft process, and incorrectly applied when it comes to one of the most controversial draft picks in the tenure of late Raiders’ owner Al Davis. Heyward-Bey is a reserve receiver and special teams player for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who visit the Coliseum on Sunday.
Heyward-Bey never became the game-breaking wide receiver Davis envisioned. Instead, he came to understand his limitations, maximizing both his career and income.
“We appreciate what he brings, but it’s interesting, he’s a football player first and a wide receiver second,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin told Bay Area media by conference call Wednesday. “A lot of the contributions he’s had over the course of his career has been in the area of special teams, and it has been a significant one.”
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Leading up to the 2009 NFL draft, one of the Raiders’ many needs was wide receiver. During a pro day at Cal, I talked with 49ers then general manager Scot McCloughan about the top prospects.
The top receivers were Michael Crabtree of Texas Tech, Jeremy Maclin of Missouri and Percy Harvin of Florida. McCloughan knows the Raiders organization well. His late father was an All-AFL cornerback with the Raiders and then a long-time scout. His brother David still scouts for the Raiders.
McCloughan told me to keep an eye on Heyward-Bey, who was an honorable mention All-Atlantic Coast Conference pick at Maryland with modest statistics. But Heyward-Bey was the best size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and speed (4.3 in the 40-yard dash) combination of the draft, sure to catch Davis’ eye, McCloughan said.
Sure enough, when the Raiders came up at No. 7 overall, Heyward-Bey was the first receiver off the board. McCloughan took Crabtree at No. 10, Maclin went to the Philadelphia Eagles at No. 19, and Harvin, who had some support in the Raiders draft room, went No. 22 to the Minnesota Vikings.
Nearly a decade later, the only players among the 34 drafted receivers still drawing an NFL paycheck other than Heyward-Bey are Crabtree (who was with the Raiders from 2015-17 before joining the Baltimore Ravens), Mike Wallace (a third-round pick on injured reserve with the Eagles) and Julian Edelman (an option quarterback and seventh-round pick out of Kent State by the New England Patriots).
The Raiders learned quickly that Heyward-Bey was not a fluid, natural receiver. He had a habit of jumping for balls that hit him in the stomach rather than running through the route and maintaining his speed. Nor was Heyward-Bey adept at adjusting to balls in flight.
Heyward-Bey was getting criticized heavily on blogs, and then on Twitter when it started in 2010. Comments said “DHB” stood for “Drops Hella Balls.” Reporters made note of his training camp drops on a daily basis. Davis lectured the media, reminding them when Fred Biletnikoff couldn’t catch a cold, Cliff Branch had hands of stone, and Jerry Rice was nicknamed “Oops.”
It wasn’t until Hue Jackson arrived in 2010 as offensive coordinator, then in 2011 as head coach, that Heyward-Bey put up some numbers. Instead of asking him to run under rainbows, Jackson had quarterbacks throw short to Heyward-Bey, where he could use his size and strength to break tackles and run after the catch.
In 2011, Heyward-Bey had his biggest season, with 64 receptions for 950 yards. He played one year under Dennis Allen, catching 41 passes, then left as a free agent – first to the Indianapolis Colts in 2013 and then to the Steelers.
The Colts and Steelers, like the Raiders, quickly surmised Heyward-Bey was never going to become a big-time receiver.
But here’s where the story gets good. Heyward-Bey, who never complained when he was getting criticized in Oakland and was always lauded for his work ethic, made the most out of what he did have in terms of a skill set rather than obsessing over what he lacked.
He threw himself into special teams, particularly on coverage units.
Heyward-Bey is currently in the last year of a three-year deal worth $3.8 million, having caught 30 passes over the last four seasons (21 of those in 2015) and just a single reception this year.
This season, Heyward-Bey has more than twice as many special teams snaps as he does as a receiver, which is rare considering he doesn’t return kickoffs or punts.
“It’s an adjustment, but you take the strides, you understand this is where I am in my career,” Heyward-Bey told Steelers.com this past offseason. “This is who I am right not now, and I embrace it. A lot of people wake up in the morning, brush their teeth and lie to themselves. I try not to. I try to tell myself the truth so I can get better.”
According to spotrac.com, Heyward-Bey’s total earnings are $38.3 million, and he’s relied on his mother, a CPA, to make sure the money saved has been invested wisely.
At 31, DHB may or may not be at the end of the road. Heyward-Bey has the last laugh if he wants it, but the beauty is he’s never wanted to use it anyway.