IRVING, Texas – In just under the span of a year, Nick Hayden has gone from unknown to old salt -- those familiar with the Cowboys' defensive line situation know why.
It's only been 16 months since Hayden signed in Dallas after missing the 2012 season with an injury, and it hasn't even been a year since he secured himself a starting defensive tackle job with the Cowboys. Despite that, a slew of comings and goings in free agency mean Hayden is suddenly one of the defense's veterans in 2014.
"It's definitely a little different. Obviously we lost some key parts of our defensive line last year," Hayden said. "But I feel like the new guys we brought in can do the job just as good or even better."
That's been the hope of seemingly every front office move during the past three months. The Cowboys traded up to draft DeMarcus Lawrence No. 34 overall in the NFL draft, and they added several new bodies in free agency to compensate for the loss of Pro Bowlers DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher.
The result is a defensive line that has a lot to prove this season – and hopefully a lot more depth than it did last year.
"I think this year we're going to look at it differently and have more of a rotation, an eight-man rotation, going to keep us all fresh, which will help," Hayden said. "We'll just go from there, and we've all got to keep getting better. I think the rotation will help."
Hayden figures to feature prominently in that rotation, but the amount of adding the Cowboys have done doesn't make anything a safe bet. Free agent Terrell McClain, brought over from the Houston Texans, should push Hayden for snaps and seventh-round draft pick Ken Bishop could work his way into the mix. Ben Bass, who was absent in 2013 thanks to injury, is also fighting for a roster spot. And that doesn't even include the big-name free agency signing, Henry Melton.
"You just can't really worry about it – you've just got to do you," Hayden said. "You've just got to go out there, work hard and just focus on yourself, make sure you're getting better first and then worry about all the other things later."
Of course, whichever way the rotation works out is bound to be an improvement from the makeshift line the Cowboys had to resort to last season. Injuries to Bass and Tyrone Crawford – both of whom are fully healthy – and Anthony Spencer, who is still rehabbing from offseason surgery, put the Cowboys in dire straits defensively. That doesn't even include Ware's own injury problems and the loss of Jay Ratliff.
The Cowboys famously signed 19 different defensive linemen to help compensate for the losses. The strategy worked a select few times – games against Minnesota and Philadelphia come to mind – but largely left Dallas with an ineffective pass rush. [embedded_ad]
Even if it might affect his playing time, Hayden said the added depth should be a benefit. As one of just two defensive linemen to play in all 16 games last year, his 821 registered snaps averaged out to 51 per game.
"It definitely helps having other guys come in, because, like last year, we all got pretty tired at the end of the year. So we definitely needed this rotation," he said. "It'll be huge this year and hopefully it works out, and hopefully we're not bringing in 20 different names each week. We're trying to get something where we can have the same number of guys and keep it that way the whole year."
A deeper, fresher defensive line could pay dividends for the Cowboys' entire defense, which is faced with the challenge of improving from No. 32 in the league last season. Hayden said he's put plenty of focus this offseason into improving his abilities as a pass rusher, among other things.
But as he continues to gain experience, both in the NFL and with the Cowboys, he said he feels more and more comfortable with his role – so long as he keeps working.
"Each year it's just going to get easier and easier for me, because the more I play the more comfortable you get in there, and you pick up on little things," he said. "But you just always needs to improve on everything – every facet of your game you need to improve on."