DJ Hayden
The cornerback from Houston nearly died after a practice field mishap, but is back and likely to be taken early in the draft. (Associated Press)

This is the third in a series of 10 looks at the available prospects in the draft, with a focus on players who could end up as Redskins. Other installments: Safety | offensive line

As he has gone through the pre-draft process of interviews, Pro Day performances, and visits with prospective teams, Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden has made sure he cherishes every moment, taking nothing for granted.

In just under two weeks, he likely will hear his name announced as the draft pick of an NFL team. Most projections have the 5-foot-11, 191-pound senior going late in the first round, or possibly somewhere in the second round, where the Redskins hold pick No. 51.

Obviously, he’d like to go as high as possible. But considering the predicament Hayden found himself in five months ago, Hayden is just happy to draw consideration from NFL teams — and to be alive.

During a Nov. 6 practice, with two games left in the season, Hayden and a teammate collided, and he took a knee to the chest. Initially, Hayden believed he had just had the wind knocked out of him. But it wound up being a life-threatening injury.

“When I was breathing, I just wasn’t breathing right,” Hayden recalled at the NFL Scouting Combine. “[The team doctor] took me inside. He was asking me these questions and I was getting real cold. I’m looking around and I’m getting real sleepy. My left eye goes pitch black. I can’t see out of it.

I can see a little bit out of my left eye. I’m praying, ‘Lord, help me get out of this one.’ They rushed me to the hospital and did a scan on my stomach and my chest. They saw a lot of blood in my abdomen.

They thought it was my liver or my spleen. The doctor said he was going to have to cut me open. I said, ‘Okay, just don’t mess my abs up.’ So they cut through my sternum and saw the [inferior vena cava], the main vein to your heart, was torn.”

Hayden never realized how serious his injury was until he woke up and found himself hooked up to all kinds of machines, and talked with his doctors and watched the reports on the news.

The way your heart is set up, it’s in a sack. It punched the sack enough for the blood to bleed out. If all the blood had stayed in the sack it would have exploded. But he didn’t punch it too big where all the blood would have fallen out and I bled to death. It was amazing. . . . I realized I was truly blessed. They told me what happened was 95 percent fatal. I’m truly blessed to be here right now.”

The vein is now fully healed, and there is no concern about its condition deteriorating. The sternum in February and March hadn’t yet returned to 100 percent strength, so Hayden didn’t do any lifting at the combine or his Pro Day. But he did clock 40-yard dash time of 4.4 seconds and recorded a vertical leap of 33 1/2 inches and broad jump of 10 feet.

Hayden’s injury, which he says doctors describe as a “freak accident,” hasn’t caused him to hesitate about returning to the field. Instead, he now uses his close call as a sense of motivation. He admits playing with reservation in the past out of fear of injury, and he said that kept him from playing at his full potential. That will never happen again.

“The way I’m looking at it is if you’re going to do something, do it to your fullest,” Hayden said. “If I’m going to play a game, I’m going to play my hardest the whole game. If that was my time to end, I don’t feel I finished like I finished my career the way I wanted to. I don’t feel like I played well in my last game. I just want another opportunity to play another game and do what I can do.”

Draft analysts believe Hayden has the potential to be an effective player in the NFL. But most draft projections have Hayden ranked behind Alabama’s Dee Millner, Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes and Washington’s Desmond Trufant.

“Hayden has a great story to have come back from the life threatening situation, to get himself back in the late first-round discussion,” ESPN’s Mel Kiper says. “Good cover guy, not great tackler, not great support, but a real good cover guy, and in this league, that’s what you need.”

In a draft that boasts a deep cornerback class, it’s just a matter of where he gets selected that remains to be seen.

Jones’s top 10 cornerbacks:

rank player school ht. wt. proj. rd.
1 Dee Millner Alabama 6-0 201 1
2 Xavier Rhodes Florida State 6-2 210 1
3 Desmond Trufant Washington 6-0 190 1
4 Jamar Taylor Boise State 5-11 192 2
5 David Amerson N.C. State 6-1 205 2
6 Johnathan Banks Miss. State 6-2 185 2
7 D.J. Hayden Houston 5-11 191 2
8 Darius Slay Miss. State 6-0 192 2-3
9 Blidi Wreh-Wilson Connecticut 6-1 195 2-3
10 Jordan Poyer Oregon State 6-0 192 2-3

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