Nick Hayden earned a job this summer

IRVING, Texas – When the Cowboys signed Nick Hayden to a free agent deal on Feb. 11, they did not believe he would be the odds-on favorite to start the regular-season opener at defensive tackle.

Hayden was out of football last year, cut by Cincinnati late in the preseason and given an injury settlement to cover an ankle injury. Healthy five weeks later, Hayden went the whole season without even a workout with a team.

When the Cowboys called, he jumped.

“Shoot, I don’t think I had that many options,” Hayden said.

With Jay Ratliff out most of the entire offseason and through training camp because of groin and hamstring injuries, Hayden has climbed the ranks of the depth chart. In the organized team activities and June mini-camp he became an interesting project. In training camp in Oxnard, he split time with Sean Lissemore before wrestling the job away in part because Lissemore suffered a groin injury.

He has started every preseason game and with Ratliff in serious doubt to play Sept. 8 against the New York Giants he could start the opener, too.

“I don’t really worry about it, but you know you’ve got to get your mind right for it,” Hayden said. “So, I’ve done it before. I’ve started games before. Just got to be ready for the moment and just seize it.”

He has started 13 of 28 games, including 10 for Carolina in 2010. His best game that season came against Chicago when he seven tackles and a sack. Maybe Rod Marinelli, who was the Bears defensive coordinator that day and is now the Cowboys defensive line coach, noticed.

Hayden spent last year keeping in shape near his Milwaukee-area home and enjoying time with his wife. At 27, he was not ready to move on from the game even if it moved on from him in 2012.

“I mean you never know when this game is going to end,” Hayden said. “Every guy in the locker room, you just don’t know. That’s why you’ve got to take full advantage of every opportunity and just glad they gave me the opportunity to come here.”