He’s buried himself in an unfamiliar playbook. He’s trying to become familiar with different terminology. He’s struggling to learn everyone’s name on his new team, including the coaches for the Atlanta Falcons.
The cornerback called up one of the assistants a couple of times over the weekend, going over calls and formations. Now, if only he could remember who was on the other end of the line.
“It’s a challenge,” Hayden said Monday, standing in front of a locker that was identified as his by a handwritten placard. “I’m still learning the coaches’ names.”
Hayden is one of two experienced defensive backs signed last week by the Falcons to bolster their thin secondary, another step toward building a team that can make a run at the . In the very next locker was safety James Sanders, who landed in Atlanta under similar circumstances.
Both were dumped by their previous teams — Hayden in Indianapolis, Sanders in New England — more for salary cap reasons than their performance on the field.
Hayden starred in the Colts’ Super Bowl win in 2007, clinching the victory with his return of an interception for a touchdown. Sanders started 49 games for the Patriots and is coming off a season in which he set career highs with three interceptions and six passes defended.
“You can’t coach depth. You can’t coach experience,” Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson said. “Anytime you get a chance to add that to the mix, it’s a plus.”
Given their resumes, both could eventually challenge for extensive playing time, maybe even a starting job. The current starters look forward to getting pushed by the newcomers.
“They are two proven players in this league,” safety Thomas DeCoud said. “Competition always breeds success. It will make us better as a team and as individuals.”
First, Hayden and Sanders have to learn the ropes with a new organization. They only signed with the Falcons in time to watch the final preseason game from the sideline. They practiced for the first time Monday, a dreary day in the Atlanta area as the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee made their way northward.
“Of course, I want to get out there and play,” said the 27-year-old Sanders, who got a locker right beside Hayden and had lunch with him before practice. “But right now, my focus is on learning the playbook and this team. Without that, there’s no way I can even be on the field.”
Sanders was quickly scooped up by the Falcons after being cut by the Patriots. The 28-year-old Hayden took a little longer to find a new job, having missed the final four games last season with a neck injury that reportedly scared off some teams.
Hayden said he’s fully recovered from the latest in a series of injuries that have kept him from playing a full season since 2007.
“My neck is fine,” he said. “I feeling good and ready to go.”
The Falcons lack significant depth behind DeCoud and William Moore. Second-year player Shann Schillinger is the only other safety on the roster, so Sanders should get extensive playing time once he’s familiar with the system.
Pro Bowler Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson are set at the cornerback positions, but Hayden could fill a valuable role at nickel back. Chris Owens is still on the roster, but has yet to live up to expectations heading into his third season. He was picked on mercilessly by Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay’s playoff romp over the Falcons.
After a winless preseason, Atlanta opens the regular season Sunday at Chicago in a matchup of division champions from 2010.
“I’m trying my best to get out there,” Hayden said. “I might miss the first game, but then I feel like I’ll be ready to go.”
Sanders was pleased to wind up with another winning organization after leaving the Patriots.
“This is a good, young, up-and-coming football team,” he said. “They have great players, great management, everything you could want in an organization. I’m thankful for the opportunity to be here. I’m thankful to be an Atlanta Falcon. I look forward to helping us win some games.”
Notes: Coach Mike Smith confirmed that Garrett Reynolds will start at right offensive guard. He was No. 1 on the depth chart throughout the preseason, so the announcement following Monday’s practice was no surprise. Reynolds beat out Mike Johnson for the spot held last season by Harvey Dahl, who signed with St. Louis. … The Falcons filled out the last remaining spot on their practice squad Monday, signing tight end Marquez Branson. A day earlier, the team brought back quarterback John Parker Wilson, safety Rafael Bush, offensive guard Andrew Jackson, offensive tackle Jose Valdez, linebacker Robert James and receivers Kevin Cone and Drew Davis. … With Wilson demoted to the practice squad, Atlanta plans to open the season with only two quarterbacks on the active roster: starter Matt Ryan and Chris Redman.