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Should we expect big plays from William Hayes in 2009?

There’s an age-old axiom that states, “He who laughs last, laughs best.”

Are you listening, Mel Kiper?

On draft day in 2008, Kiper ridiculed the Tennessee Titans for trading up to select little-known Winston Salem State DE William “Big Play” Hayes in the fourth round. Hayes, who wasn’t even invited to the combine that year, was rated as Kiper’s 66th best DE prospect in the ’08 draft.

Kiper may have laughed that day, but it’s the Titans who should be bursting into laughter now. Despite some early-season struggles, by the end of 2008, Hayes displayed signs of becoming a pretty good player down the road.

Will Hayes continue to improve in 2009?  

As his rookie year unfolded, Hayes experienced a ton of growing pains in his attempt to make the transition from playing in the MEAC to adjusting to life in the NFL.

In training camp, Hayes often found himself serving as defensive line coach Jim Washburn’s whipping boy. On more than a few occasions, the rookie DE was the recipient of profanity-laced tirades courtesy of Washburn.

During the early stages of last year, Hayes failed to make much of an impact. His playing time curtailed as a result of not being ready to contribute at the NFL level, Hayes was unable to live up to his “Big Play” moniker.

Despite his troubles, Hayes saved his best for last as he was finally able to become a contributor on the Titan defense. In his final three games, Hayes registered a total of seven tackles and one sack. His best showing was a three-tackle, one-sack performance in the Titans’ win over the eventual Super Bowl Champion Steelers.

In 2009, Hayes is poised to continue his development into a solid DE in this league. The guy starting over him, Jevon Kearse, isn’t getting any younger, so it should only be a matter of time before William’s time as a starter arrives.

In the meantime, I expect Hayes to continue to develop into a solid contributor in the Titans’ defensive end rotation. In addition to increased playing time, I’m also hopeful that Hayes will emerge as a rather frequent source of big plays in the form of sacks, tackles for losses and forced fumbles.

Who’s laughing now, Mel Kiper?