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Oakland Raiders Darius Heyward-Bey's fourth quarter catch was ruled incomplete after a review against the Chicago Bears on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011, at O.Co Coliseum in Oakland, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Staff)

Outwardly, Darrius Heyward-Bey seems no different from when he arrived as the controversial No. 7 overall pick of the 2009 draft.

He has the same easy smile and a lack of concern over statistics that at times seems to border on disinterest.

Heyward-Bey would shrug when his numbers suggested he was on his way to becoming a big-time draft bust, the same way he does now after emerging as the Raiders' top receiver.

"I don't care what critics say," Heyward-Bey said. "All I care about is me, my teammates and my coaches."

For two years, critics said a lot, and not without reason.

In two seasons, Heyward-Bey caught only 35 passes with nine drops. The fastest receiver in the draft was left in the dust by every other wide receiver selected in the first round.

Making it worse was the fact he was targeted 105 times with a reception rate of just 33.3 percent. It was that stat that prompted statistical analysis website Football Outsiders to pronounce Heyward-Bey one of the least valuable players in the entire NFL.

Through it all, former coach Tom Cable and Hue Jackson, first as offensive coordinator and then head coach, insisted Heyward-Bey was working hard at his craft. Results would follow, they promised.

In Year 3, while there is a ways to go for Heyward-Bey to be considered among the NFL's elite receivers, he is at least competitive with the rest of his draft class and has put up respectable numbers.

With 51 receptions for 775 yards and three touchdowns, Heyward-Bey will become the first wide receiver to lead the Raiders in receptions and yardage since Ronald Curry (55 receptions, 717 yards) in 2007.

His rate of receptions per target is up to 56.9 percent, and while still plagued by the occasional dropped pass, they are becoming more infrequent, with five in 14 games.

If Heyward-Bey was ever bothered by the pressure of being the first receiver taken in his draft class -- and then struggling for two years -- he never let on.

"You have your up and down days as a human being in general," Heyward-Bey said. "I've been keeping steady for the most part. The only time I've ever not had confidence was in my sophomore year in high school when I didn't make the varsity. Other than that, I really don't care. I just go out and play ball."

Heyward-Bey put it all on display -- the good and the not-so-good -- in Sunday's 28-27 loss to the Detroit Lions. Carson Palmer threw to Heyward-Bey 11 times and completed eight for 155 yards, including a 43-yard touchdown.

On the touchdown, Heyward-Bey reached out and snagged the catch with two hands away from his body, something he didn't always do in his first two seasons, then broke a tackle and used the 4.3-second 40-yard dash speed that made him a natural Al Davis selection to get into the end zone.

Later, Heyward-Bey broke two more tackles on a 29-yard gain, was stripped from behind and lost a fumble. Then on the final drive, he dropped a Palmer pass that may or may not have resulted in a Sebastian Janikowski field goal attempt in the 50-yard range -- there were no timeouts and no guarantee Oakland would have gotten off another snap.

"I told you guys it was going to go his way because he works extremely hard," Jackson said. "He's a talented player and was very close to being the player of the game. He's got things he needs to continue to work on, but he's getting closer and his numbers speak for themselves."

Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers sees a different receiver this year.

"He looks more confident in himself and in his hands," Flowers said by conference call. "Before, it was like he was trying to do too much, he was trying to concentrate too hard instead of just relaxing. It's like the game slowed down for him and he's growing into his own as an NFL receiver."

A big part in getting the most out of Heyward-Bey has been getting him in catch-and-run situations where he can use his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame to his advantage. Flowers said opposing corners are sometimes reluctant to close on Heyward-Bey for fear he'll run past them.

Heyward-Bey has yet to show he can make adjustments consistently under long passes, but Jackson thinks that part will develop.

"When he starts making those uncommon plays that you look for at that position, that's when he's arrived," Jackson said.

Saturday's game

Raiders (7-7) at Chiefs (6-8), 10 a.m. CBS