NAPA -- When Raiders wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey was told his head coach wanted him to assume a leadership role, he seemed mildly offended.
"I was a leader in that room last year," Heyward-Bey said. "I don't say much, but I just try to go out there and lead by example ... any time we have anything going on, the guys look toward me, and I have no problem with that."
How have things changed entering Heyward-Bey's fourth NFL season?
When he dropped a pass during a recent practice, it almost went unnoticed because he followed it up with several smooth receptions.
In Heyward-Bey's rookie season, his frequent drops were chronicled in beat blogs and print reports. It so annoyed owner Al Davis that one day, after a rough Heyward-Bey practice, the media found itself placed in 25-yard boxes at one end of each practice field.
When media members complained, the next day the 25-yard box was 20 yards.
Later, at a press conference, Davis reminded people that Jerry Rice was nicknamed "oops" after a difficult rookie training camp and that Fred Biletnikoff wasn't much better.
Heyward-Bey's numbers in Year 3, as well as visual evidence through the first four practices of training camp, suggest Davis was on to something. Heyward-Bey caught 64 passes for 975 yards and four touchdowns in 2011 and is only 25 years old.
Promising rookie receivers Juron Criner and Rod Streater both noted Heyward-Bey is usually the first to the
Those instances are dwarfed by the number of times where Heyward-Bey snatches the ball out of the air aggressively and cleanly.
Heyward-Bey outwardly never showed any signs of angst as he struggled for two years, nor did he say "I told you so" as he played 827 snaps -- the most of any Raiders wide out -- and emerged as a legitimate NFL receiver in 2011.
"Since Day 1, since Al Davis brought me in, I've been the same guy," he said. "The results have been different, but the mind-set has been the same."
Derided by ESPN analyst Cris Carter after being the No. 7 overall pick in the draft because he was an "honorable mention" selection on the All-Atlantic Coast Conference team while at Maryland, Heyward-Bey has gradually smoothed rough edges of his game in terms of catching the ball and route-running.
His 4.3-second time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine remains in evidence, and at 6-foot-2, 216 pounds, Heyward-Bey's size surprises new teammates who never met him in person.
Former coach Hue Jackson maximized that size by putting Heyward-Bey in positions to catch relatively short passes, break tackles and then run. In the second-to-last game of the season, Heyward-Bey showed he could adjust under a long pass by racing under a 53-yard strike by Carson Palmer in overtime to set up a win over Kansas City.
About the only blip in Heyward-Bey's ascension was a no-contest plea in an April 7 DUI arrest. Given it was his first offense, a league suspension is unlikely. He said he's put the issue behind him.
Raiders coach Dennis Allen said he's not concerned about statistics or identifying a "No. 1" receiver but does expect Heyward-Bey to insist on his teammates giving the kind of effort he is on a daily basis.
"There's nothing that says a guy, even though he might be a vocal guy, can't get on somebody if they're not doing it right," Allen said. "We're all held to a certain standard. I've been pleased so far."