GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Packers rookie cornerback Casey Hayward could be two games away from joining elite company.
Hayward, the 62nd overall selection in this year's draft, is practically a lock to win the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
Hayward is tied for fourth in the NFL with six interceptions, and, according to ProFootballFocus.com's rating system, has been the second-best cornerback in the entire NFL.
"You never expect anything to this extreme," Hayward told FOXSportsWisconsin.com last week. "I've been playing pretty good, trying to get better. If that award comes, then it comes, and I'll be happy if it does. I'm still trying to get the hang of things, though."
If this is Hayward still getting the hang of things, the Packers should have a lockdown cornerback for the next decade.
When opposing quarterbacks have thrown the ball to the wide receiver Hayward is covering, their passer rating is just 23.5. That is by far the best mark in the NFL for any cornerback, with the league's next-best production coming from Chicago's Tim Jennings. And Jennings, prior to missing the past two games due to injury, was a candidate for the NFL's Most Valuable Player award.
"I don't really have any individual goals; the only thing I worry about is winning," Hayward said. "As long as we keep winning, I'll be happy."
The only two players who pose any threat whatsoever to Hayward being the Defensive Rookie of the Year are Seattle Seahawks inside linebacker Bobby Wagner and Carolina Panthers inside linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Wagner was a second-round pick, 15 spots before Hayward, and Kuechly was the ninth overall selection.
Defensive Rookie of the Year honors would add Hayward's name to a list that includes star players -- many of whom could be Hall of Famers -- such as teammate Charles Woodson (1998), linebacker Brian Urlacher (2000), defensive end Julius Peppers (2002) and linebacker Terrell Suggs (2003), as well as recent breakout players such as defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh (2010) and outside linebacker Von Miller (2011).
A week before the regular season began, Hayward said it would be "a dream come true" to start in Week 1, but that didn't happen. Instead, it took until Week 7 for Hayward to get his first career start, and that only happened once Sam Shields suffered an ankle injury. But since then, Hayward has played 85 percent of all defensive snaps.
"Every week I'm getting more comfortable, every week I'm getting more plays," Hayward said Wednesday. "The coaches are getting more comfortable with me being in there. As long as I gain their trust, I'll be fine."
Hayward added his sixth interception in Green Bay's division-clinching win Sunday over the Bears, picking off Jay Cutler after reading the double-move by wide receiver Devin Hester. The interception swung the game's momentum in favor of the Packers.
"Once he doubled-moved me, they only do one route after the double move, he bends up and goes straight up the field," Hayward said. "I think that's what Cutler was thinking he was going to do. After he double-moved, I just turned around and found the ball."
That interception was the easiest of Hayward's six this season, but there have been several others where the 23-year-old from Vanderbilt was in coverage downfield, found the ball mid-air and grabbed it.
"He kind of has that knack of instincts in terms of coming up with the ball at the right time," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
Hayward has started to see his name attached to the term "ballhawk" more often recently.
"I like that term, if you want to call me that," Hayward said. "I've been labeled that in college. It's better being labeled it here, so if I continue this, hopefully I can get that label."
Hayward should soon have another label attached to his name: NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
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