The former Tennessee Titans head coach has been quick to surround himself with familiar faces that he hopes will make an immediate impact for one of the worst teams in the entire league. The signing of Cortland Finnegan was the most obvious import of a known quantity during the offseason, but an under-the-radar addition of a player coming off of a down season could yield major dividends for the Rams.
Fisher has long been an advocate of heavy substitution for his defensive linemen, often playing with a full eight-man rotation. Consequently, there are plenty of snaps to share and, in the shape of William Hayes, Fisher has a familiar face well used to the opportunities that this rotation gives him. Hayes struggled under Mike Munchak and Jerry Gray, but reunited with Jeff Fisher his historic displays in a familiar defense makes Hayes the epitome of a Secret Superstar.
Playing in the Shadows
Emerging from Division II Winston-Salem in the 2008 NFL Draft, Hayes brought little pageantry with him to the Tennessee Titans as a fourth round selection, just outside the Top 100 picks. With Stephen A. Smith being one of the university’s most noted alumni, the school was more known for writing about sport than playing it. However, Hayes showed immediately the ability to make the large leap from low level college football all the way to the professional ranks.
Hayes recorded his first professional snap in Week 2 of his debut season of 2008 and, though playing time was hard to come by until mid-season, he forged himself an identity as a promising player for the future. In Week 15 of that same year he registered 33 snaps (a career-high to that point) and earned a pass rush grade of +3.0 as he recorded a hit and four hurries on only 19 rushes, firmly marking himself out as one to watch.
Overlapping with players such as Kyle Vanden Bosch and Jevon Kearse early in his career, the competition for playing time was strong but those promising glimpses late in 2008 allowed Hayes to earn 682 snaps in his second season–behind only Vanden Bosch amongst Tennessee defensive ends–and he answered the call with some consistent performances.
His five sacks may not be the calling card of a great season but for a player in his second season out of a Division II school, his consistency over the first three months was impressive. The long grind of his first full season on the active roster eventually caught up with him, though, as a poor final month had a deleterious effect on his overall grade, recording a -11.1 mark from Week 13 to Week 16. Until that point, Hayes had shown that in the right rotation with his snaps managed correctly he could flourish for the Titans. He regularly provided just enough pressure and was stout on the edge against the run, a vital skill considering some of the more cavalier defensive ends the Titans boasted at the time.
Lost in the Shuffle
Having shown so much promise until Week 12 in his second season, the Titans seemingly gave short shrift to the progress Hayes had shown by spending a first round pick on Derrick Morgan in the 2010 Draft. This potentially robbed Hayes of significant playing time in his third season, the season that is so often the breakout year for players league wide. However, when Morgan lost his rookie season to injury, Hayes grabbed that opportunity with open arms and put in the best campaign of his career to date. He graded +9.5 overall and positively as both a run defender and pass rusher, but a combination of factors again contrived to keep Hayes out of the limelight.
In spite of his +5.9 pass rush grade, Hayes only recorded two sacks–a number that is more likely to have people calling for your roster spot as a defensive end than have media and coaches raving about your performances. That statistical inconvenience was harmed all the more by the phenomenal seasons put forth by Jason Babin (+25.6 PFF grade, 14 sacks and 20 hits), Jason Jones (+21.6 PFF grade), and to a lesser extent, Dave Ball (7 sacks) alongside him on the defensive line.
Hayes brought pressure on the quarterback in almost every game that season and once again his edge run defense was a crucial foil to the unabashed aggression that the other Titan defensive ends exhibited. In spite of his performances solidifying his profile as a valuable member of the Titans’ defensive line rotation, Hayes was completely lost in the shuffle after 2010.
After Fisher’s departure, Hayes’ fine 2010 season was quickly forgotten as the Titans new coaching staff apparently decided that his inability to finish plays attacking the quarterback made him dispensable in their new DE rotation. Morgan, Ball, and Jones all took more snaps at defensive end and the Titans missed his run defense off the edge while none of those players set the world alight in terms of the pass rush that Hayes was deemed not to bring to the table. Hayes didn’t get many opportunities; he recorded a three-year low 332 snaps, and failed to capitalize on the chances that he did get. In a “what have you done for me lately” league, Hayes’ fine play as a perfect foil for aggressive defensive ends was all too quickly forgotten.
A Fresh Start
Every player needs a coach who believes in them and, in St. Louis, Hayes will be reunited with the coach under whom he developed so secretly during the first three years of his career. He wasn’t a star in Tennessee and with former first round picks Chris Long and Robert Quinn leading the charge in St. Louis, it is unlikely that Hayes will be a star for the Rams. However, if he can claim the playing time that the first three years of his career suggest that he deserves, Hayes will be a vital member of the Rams’ new defensive line rotation.
Both Long and Quinn are definitively “rush first” defensive ends, their combined run defense grade last season was -17.8 and that suits Hayes’ game down to the ground. From his days in Tennessee he is well used to playing opposite rush-first, up-the-field defensive ends and his ability to set the edge while still applying a steady flow of pressure would be a perfect fit for the Rams. Hayes is destined to remain under the radar even if he fulfills that role and that under-appreciated grunt work for the star pass rushers is what makes William Hayes a Secret Superstar.
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