Casey Hayward bringing experience, insight to Falcons’ defensive backfield

Falcons defensive back Casey Hayward, left, talks with defensive back Corey Ballentine (39) during minicamp at the Atlanta Falcons Training Facility Tuesday, June 14, 2022, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Falcons defensive back Casey Hayward, left, talks with defensive back Corey Ballentine (39) during minicamp at the Atlanta Falcons Training Facility Tuesday, June 14, 2022, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

At her DSA Sports Performance gym in Marietta, trainer Lily Abdelmalek works with athletes ranging from the college ranks to NFL pros, pushing them to elevate their performance while mixing in friendly competition from time to time. Her list of high-profile athletes includes Falcons cornerback Casey Hayward, who has worked with Abdelmalek for more than a decade since he broke into the NFL with the Green Bay Packers.

ExploreMore AJC coverage of the Falcons

Though Hayward has two Pro Bowls and 10 seasons in the NFL on his resume, Abdelmalek said that an essential part of his approach is sharing his knowledge with the athletes he trains alongside. With Hayward now a member of the Falcons secondary, his new team is banking on him to bring that same approach to the Flowery Branch practice fields and help mentor their young defensive backs.

“He’s a leader amongst the young guys, especially,” Abdelmalek said. “He’s always willing to help and give advice, which I think is great because a lot of guys might not do that. That’s what he enjoys doing, too.”

Hayward signed a two-year, $11 million contract with the Falcons in March, fortifying a secondary that ranked in the bottom half of the league in passing yards allowed per game and surrendered 31 passing touchdowns, tied for third-most in the league last season. The Perry native should carve out a starting role on the Falcons defense, but at this stage of his career, he is eager to be a leader on the field this season.

“Passing the knowledge down to the younger guys and things like that, that’s what it’s about,” Hayward said. “I’ve just so happened to be here for a long time. I know I’m on the back end, so I want to help pass knowledge down the best that I can.”

A second-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2012, Hayward saw the field immediately with the Packers and recorded six interceptions in his rookie season. After injuries derailed his tenure in Green Bay, he moved west to San Diego and regained his form as one of the league’s top corners. In his first two seasons with the Chargers and with full health, Hayward combined for 11 interceptions and received Pro Bowl selections in both years.

In 2021, Hayward signed a one-year deal with the Chargers’ AFC West rival, the Las Vegas Raiders, and played in all 17 games. One of his teammates there, current Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota, bonded with Hayward over their shared enthusiasm for the game. Mariota said he always learned something from Hayward, a dual-threat quarterback in his high school career, and said Hayward’s experience made him most valuable as a teammate.

“It’s pretty impressive, his pattern recognition,” Mariota said. “He still physically can do it, getting in and out of cuts. I’ve learned a lot from him, just being around him and being able to talk ball and be like, ‘Hey, what did you see there, you broke on that early - what can I do better?’”

Abdelmalek said Hayward’s football IQ and meticulous film habits have helped him to expand his game beyond his physicality and sustain an NFL career for over a decade.

“He does a really good job of taking the time to do the work that’s off the field, so working on film and studying,” Abdelmalek said. “That gives him that one-up compared with just being physical. Along with his patience and just the degree of knowledge he has at playing his position, he studies, and he studies his opponents.”

Combined ShapeCaption
Falcons defensive back Casey Hayward (29) is shown during minicamp at the Atlanta Falcons Training Facility Tuesday, June 14, 2022, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Falcons defensive back Casey Hayward (29) is shown during minicamp at the Atlanta Falcons Training Facility Tuesday, June 14, 2022, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Falcons defensive back Casey Hayward (29) is shown during minicamp at the Atlanta Falcons Training Facility Tuesday, June 14, 2022, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

“You can see he knows football,” Falcons secondary coach Jon Hoke said. “He’s very instinctive. He’s been a positive influence on the (defensive backs meeting) room and on everybody because he’s not a loud guy or anything like that, but just the way he plays.”

At 32 years old, Hayward is past his physical prime and will likely serve as a short-term starter, though the Falcons’ coaches praised his feel for the game and agility through the team’s voluntary OTA practices. But for a secondary loaded with up-and-coming talents such as 2020 first-round draft pick A.J. Terrell, the long-term importance of Hayward’s experience and leadership to their development can’t be overstated.

So far, the two-time Pro Bowler has more than lived up to expectations.

“He’s a good teacher, and everybody kind of gravitates toward him,” assistant defensive backs coach Nick Perry said. “It’s easy for the younger guys to follow and kind of do what he does with his experience in the league. Hopefully, people can take a little bit of what he does and apply it to their game.”