Commentary

Raiders' first-round pick confident

Despite critics, injuries and dropped practice passes, Darrius Heyward-Bey is unfazed

Originally Published: June 18, 2009
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

Do I have to stage an intervention here?

I might have no choice with this kid, Darrius Heyward-Bey. The Oakland Raiders rookie wideout is under all kinds of pressure after being the upset pick of the 2009 NFL draft, the seventh selection overall, ahead of the Hands-Down Best Receiver, Michael Crabtree.

Worse, the friendly, humble, funny, 6-foot-2, 206-pounder is dangerously in denial.

So, Darrius, what's it like having your career buried by fans, writers and ESPN analysts Cris Carter and Todd McShay before your first snap?

"It's been fine," the former Maryland star said. "The coaching staff told me that I was the pick they wanted. They said I fit best in our offense."

How have you handled the pressure?

"Same way I always have," he said. "As long as I come here and work hard, that's all I can do. I don't think the fans know what I can do. I don't think anyone here woke up early to watch Maryland games last year."

How have your new teammates -- maybe privately questioning your selection -- treated you?

"Great," he said. "Everyone's treated me like a normal teammate. I forget that I was the seventh pick."

He'll remember soon enough. Every few years, a team picks a player that the public hates. Think Mario Williams instead of Reggie Bush and Vince Young. Or Donovan McNabb over Ricky Williams. Or Joe Mauer, not Mark Prior.

This year's guy is Heyward-Bey. Oakland picked him despite the presence of Texas Tech's Crabtree and Missouri's Jeremy Maclin on the board, and despite puny comparative numbers (15 career touchdowns to Crabtree's 41 and Maclin's 33).

He has puny comparative everything, really, except speed: Heyward-Bey ran a combine-best 4.3 40-yard dash.

Speed is seductive and addictive to Raiders owner Al Davis. He couldn't resist. And the pick was widely ripped -- Carter did not mince words moments after the pick on April 25 (see video above).

The former NFL standout stands by his opinion of the rookie.

"Nobody in the football world except the Raiders thought he was the best receiver," Carter says now.

"To me, the pick does not make sense. He was honorable mention All-ACC [Atlantic Coast Conference]. So he disappeared in ACC games. So if you don't think he's a franchise receiver, going to make the Pro Bowl five or six times, you don't take him that high."

Heyward-Bey's answer to his critics? In his first Raiders' minicamp, he had three consecutive drops and a pulled hamstring.

This week, he aggravated the hamstring while running an out pattern and was forced to leave practice. And yet he's ... relatively happy?

"The second I got drafted, seeing the smile on my mom's face, it was a dream come true," he said. "I love being at practice, grinding it out with the guys."

Does he read and watch what's being said about him?

"I don't," he said.

Maybe he's onto something. The best thing about having your career declared dead before it's lived is the chance to prove everybody wrong.

Nobody can accurately judge at this point. Everyone in Houston hated the Williams pick. Folks said the former North Carolina State star disappeared in ACC games, too. Remember, he handled the pressure by ignoring it.

Four years later, he's more dependable than Bush or Young. Far better, too.

It takes years to judge a pick, not an offseason workout.

Heyward-Bey was dejected during his first minicamp, but nothing else has fazed him. That's no surprise from someone who many thought couldn't translate a stellar track career at the McDonogh School (Owings Mills, Md.) into college ball. Heyward-Bey never moaned when the Terps' coaches couldn't find ways to shake him free of double-teams.

"I've been dealing with stuff like this my whole life," he said.

Heyward-Bey's situation in Oakland isn't perfect. The team hasn't won more than five games in a season since 2002. Five different head coaches have walked the sideline during that span. But expectations are impossibly low. I mean, Johnnie Lee Higgins led Oakland's receivers in catches last season with 22. Across the Bay, Crabtree is already anointed a game-changer on a San Francisco 49ers offense starved for one. But Crabtree won't practice and improve every day against a Pro Bowler like Oakland cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.

Niners quarterbacks Shaun Hill and Alex Smith don't seem better than Oakland counterpart JaMarcus Russell.

And Oakland has explosive young talent in RBs Darren McFadden and Michael Bush, whom Heyward-Bey can help, having learned to block in Maryland's run-first offense.

Niners coach Mike Singletary recently claimed he almost made Crabtree cry when the rookie ran with a broken foot before the doctors cleared him. Raiders coach Tom Cable calls Heyward-Bey "a brilliant young man" who will "handle every hurdle quickly."

He'd better. Patience is short with first-rounders.

And he won't get much sympathy from his teammates, who have already passed on the rookie's longtime nicknames -- "DHB" or "Hey-Bey" -- and anointed him "Big Money," knowing that he'll get at least $10 million guaranteed.

Time will tell whether that's money well-spent.

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com.

Seth Wickersham | email

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs.