Green Bay Packers cornerback Casey Hayward was taken off the team's Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list on Monday and practiced for the first time since training camp opened.
Even though he practiced only on a limited basis since coming back from a hamstring injury, Hayward said he couldn't have felt any better.
"I feel pretty good," Hayward told reporters after practice. "I wouldn't be out there if I wasn't 100 percent. I felt pretty good out there, a few little kinks I want to work out with my leg."
Hayward suffered the injury while training on his own in his native Georgia just before the start of training camp, saying he knew as soon as it happened that he had done something to his hamstring.
But it would appear the second-year Packers cornerback is making progress.
"Casey Hayward was put on a limited basis really, to get through the individual (portion of practice)," said head coach Mike McCarthy. "He feels really good. His conditioning has gone very well. He was very anxious to get out there and go full speed.
"I think the structure of today's practice probably helped him, being on the field for the first time. We'll see how he feels tomorrow and how he progresses through the week, but it was good to have him back out there."
Despite his fantastic rookie season in which he grabbed six interceptions, Hayward was not immediately inserted into the starting lineup on Monday. He worked behind Sam Shields and Micah Hyde, who were working with the first-string defense.
Like they do with so many of their players returning from injury, however, the Packers could just be erring on the side of caution.
Just last week, running back DuJuan Harris, tight end Ryan Taylor and wide receiver Kevin Dorsey all returned to practice but were held out of the second preseason game against the St. Louis Rams.
Perhaps the Packers put Hayward on similar plan, not allowing him to see any game action until the preseason finale in Kansas City.
"I'm glad I could get back out there this week," said Hayward. "It's been a whole month with my hamstring injury, so just getting mental reps and being out there, and I'm taking some reps this week hopefully. I'm not sure if I am or not, but hopefully I can get some reps this week, it can get me ready for Preseason (Week) 4 and get me ready for the opener with San Fran."
Hayward's first season in professional football couldn't have gone much better, having came in third in the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year voting behind Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly and Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner.
No matter the praise he's received, Hayward feels the need to prove himself all over again, especially after missing the first three-plus weeks of training camp relegated to the sidelines.
In his place, the healthy cornerbacks on the roster have seen increased practice repetitions.
"You definitely need it," said Hayward. "Like I said earlier, that season, that's in the past. I want to work on some things to get better this year. You've got Micah Hyde, Davon House, Sam Shields, they're doing a great job out there."
Also sidelined by injury has been fellow cornerback Tramon Williams, who's been nursing a bone bruise to his knee. The return of Williams is uncertain, but the Packers will definitely be buoyed by his return to play along Hayward.
How exactly the Packers will divvy up playing time between a deep cornerbacks corps if and when they're all healthy is uncertain.
Hayward and Hyde seem best suited for a slot cornerback role thanks to their instincts and a lack of elite speed, but that won't necessarily prevent them from playing on the perimeter. Hyde, in particular, has had a terrific training camp, but it will be interesting to see where he stands once the cornerback group returns intact.
No matter what the coaching staff decides to do, Hayward can only worry about himself and get prepared for the regular season, when the games actually count in the standings.
Step No. 1 was taken on Monday, and at the very least, it was a step in the right direction.
"Today was a good push," said Hayward. "I started out, I think the plays I was out there, I was out there 100 percent. So I'm just trying to get back in the groove of things, trying to get my wind back and that will help me some with shoulder pads."
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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