IRVING, Texas – Welcome to the NFL, where a defensive tackle who signed with the team as an extra body after missing the 2012 season now projects as a Week 1 starter.
That seems to be the development for the Cowboys, as Tuesday's revelation that Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jay Ratliff would miss at least the first six weeks of the season has elevated Nick Hayden into the starting lineup.
To say it's a meteoric rise would be an understatement. Hayden signed with the Cowboys on Feb. 11 after missing the entire 2012 season with an ankle injury.
"It's a great opportunity for me," Hayden said. "Being out last season like you guys already said, I've just got to run with the opportunity and just show this team what I've got and why they picked me up."
The opportunity is one Hayden wasn't sure if he'd get again. The ankle injury cost him a roster spot with the Bengals. But although the injury had healed by October, he didn't hear from a single team.
"Sometimes that happens – guys falls through the cracks. All they need is an opportunity, or maybe the right fit," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. "Maybe they were playing in a defensive scheme that didn't really fit their qualities or their traits and maybe they were overlooked."
Hayden certainly took the opportunity to stand out in Canton, Ohio. Most Cowboys fans likely hadn't heard his name until the Aug. 5 Hall of Fame game against Miami, when he fell on a fumble on the first play of the Dolphins' first possession.
Since then, as the optimism surrounding Ratliff's availability for the season opener has deteriorated, Hayden has gradually made the climb from backup to Jason Hatcher's starting linemate at defensive tackle.
"I love Hayden, man. I told him the other day I love his play, I love his energy," Hatcher said. "He's a young guy, but you can tell he's got some snaps under his belt. He plays the game right way, and he's been great for us."
It's been a bit of a journey, even before the ankle injury ended his 2012 campaign. Hayden played in just two games for the Bengals in 2011. Prior to that, he made 26 appearances in three years with Carolina as a sixth-round draft pick from Wisconsin.
"It was hard. You never know when this game is going to end – that's every guy in the locker room. You just don't know," Hayden said. "That's why you've got to take full advantage of every opportunity, and I'm just glad they gave me the opportunity."
Hayden spent his camp in a unique position as both starter and reserve. Ratliff's injury, combined with other health problems for the defensive line, pushed him into the starting defense. However, he didn't have the limited preseason that Hatcher and other veterans like defensive end DeMarcus Ware enjoyed.
Hayden seems to have excelled with that playing time. In addition to the fumble recovery, he's recorded four tackles in four preseason games in addition to several quarterback hurries.
"He's got a great attitude, and I think he understands the kind of environment he's in – how much we can help," Garrett said.
Hayden mentioned that, as well. The Cowboys added him to the roster just three weeks after the hiring of Rod Marinelli as the team's defensive line coach. With 18 years as an NFL coach and experience with players such as Warren Sapp, Booger McFarland and Julius Peppers, it's a safe bet Marinelli has had a positive influence on Hayden.
"He's been in the league for a long, long time, and he knows what it takes for players to succeed. He's been awesome – he's been awesome with me," Hayden said. "Little things have helped me out so much this year just technique-wise – getting off the ball, pass rush. It's hard to learn this stuff, but he's such a great coach teaching the little things."
Added Garrett: "It's a great environment for all those defensive linemen – we have really good coaches on our football team. If you come to work every day and try to listen to what the teaching and coaching is and take it out on the field, you're going to learn and you're going to get better. Nick has certainly done that, we've certainly seen improvement in him since the start of training camp." [embedded_ad]
It certainly seems that way, to hear it from Hatcher. For a guy who has been with the team all of six months, with 13 career starts to his name, the Cowboys look happy with Hayden.
"It seems like he's been here forever – it seems like I've known the guy forever," Hatcher said. "He's just been a great teammate, and I'm happy with who we're going to war with against the Giants. I love the guy to death."