- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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Whether Darrius Heyward-Bey will ever live up to his lofty draft status or whether he even becomes a consistently reliable player is still to be determined.
At least, the man who took an overwhelmingly amount of heat (including from this writer) for taking Heyward-Bey with the No. 7 overall pick of the 2009 draft lived to see the Oakland Raiders receiver make some strides.
In the final game he witnessed the Raiders play, Al Davis watched Heyward-Bey be a bright spot for the Raiders in a Week 4 loss to New England. While perhaps honoring the man who drafted him, Heyward-Bey enjoyed his career highlight in Week 5, the day after Davis died at the age of 82.
Heyward-Bey had a team-high seven catches for 99 yards in the Raiders’ 25-20 win at Houston, which goes down as one of the greatest regular-season moments in team history. Heyward-Bey put Oakland back in the game late in the second quarter when he scored on a 34-yard touchdown after showing strong tackle-breaking ability.
It was fitting that Heyward-Bey player such a major role in the Raiders’ first win without Davis. Heyward-Bey was emotional after the game in interviews and talked about the importance of wearing the Silver and Black. The day Davis died, Heyward-Bey tweeted a thank you to Davis for changing his life.
However, the pairing wasn’t initially easy for either man.
The Maryland product was considered a late first-round or second-round prospect prior to the draft. He had good size and stunning speed. Yet, he wasn’t overly productive in college and there were questions about his hands. Still, Davis was -- as he often was -- enamored with Heyward-Bey’s speed. Davis shocked the NFL by taking Heyward-Bey with the No. 7 pick. Most scouts thought Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree was the best all-around receiving prospect. He went three selections later to San Francisco.
Heyward-Bey didn’t do himself any favors when he dropped several passes in his first NFL minicamp. The drops continued in training camp and then in the season. Heyward-Bey had some positive moments in his first two NFL seasons, but the drops and inconsistency overpowered the bright spots.
Heyward-Bey had only 35 catches in his first 26 games.
After JaMarcus Russell -- the No. 1 pick of the 2007 draft -- busted, Davis (who scored with several late draft picks in recent years) received criticism for blowing another top pick in the form of Heyward-Bey.
Yet, Davis never wavered on Heyward-Bey. Despite several other promising young receivers on the roster, Heyward-Bey continued to get plenty of chances in his third year. It is paying off. He has 16 catches this season. But the key is his 11 catches in the past two games.
He looks much more confident and he plays very physically. The drops are decreasing.
“I keep telling you guys, Darrius is rising,” Raiders coach Hue Jackson told reporters after the Houston game. “I’m very happy for Darrius.”
Heyward-Bey will have to complete this season with several more quality games before he is considered a player who has a clear future. But he's showing that it's worth the Raiders' time to continue to develop him. The Raiders are loaded with intriguing talent at receiver, so Heyward-Bey’s development will only make this offense more difficult to defend.
He also is helping his legacy in the 2009 draft class. Overall, that year’s draft is considered to be poor. Several second- and third-round picks already have been cut by their drafting team, and several first-round picks (including every other AFC West top-round pick: Kansas City’s Tyson Jackson, Denver’s Knowshon Moreno and Robert Ayers and San Diego’s Larry English) have yet to develop. The No. 11 overall pick, Aaron Maybin of Buffalo, already has been cut. Just this week, the Raiders acquired linebacker Aaron Curry -- the No. 4 pick in that draft -- from Seattle for a seventh-round pick in 2012 and a conditional 2013 pick.
Yet, some good receivers were taken in that draft. Taken after Heyward-Bey and Crabtree (he has had a slow start to this season, but he does have 114 catches in 31 games compared with Heyward-Bey’s 51 catches in 30 games) in the first round were Philadelphia’s Jeremy Maclin, Minnesota’s Percy Harvin, the Giants’ Hakeem Nicks and Tennessee’s Kenny Britt. Other notable receivers taken in that draft were Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace (third), the Jaguars’ Mike Thomas (fourth), Oakland’s Louis Murphy (fourth), the Colts’ Austin Collie (fourth) and the Bears’ Johnny Knox (fifth).
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. is not sure if Heyward-Bey is in the league of most of those players. Yet, Williamson sees improvements being made.
“He is certainly getting better,” Williamson said. “His routes are crisper and more reliable and his hands are also more reliable. The speed is obvious -- and it is still his greatest asset.”
The Raiders hope to see Heyward-Bey continue to work and become an overall asset -- and become a positive part of Davis’ drafting legacy.