Metrics aside, Cowboys realize value of Nick Hayden

OXNARD, Calif. -- There’s something about Nick Hayden that Pro Football Focus doesn’t like. In the last two seasons Hayden has been ranked as the worst or second-worst defensive tackle in football.

“Uh, kind of but not really though,” Hayden said when asked if he knew about Pro Football Focus.

According to PFF’s metrics, Hayden should not only not be a starter on the Dallas Cowboys' line, he probably shouldn’t even be in the league.

But Hayden is back for his third year with the Cowboys. He is currently slowed by sore ribs but he has started 32 straight games and has been credited by the coaches for 103 tackles, six tackles for loss, 24 quarterbacks pressures, two pass deflections, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli loves him.

“I don’t care,” Hayden said. “As long as the coaches like my game and I’m doing my job in helping the team win, that’s all that matters. They can grade me however they want. The real grade counts by Marinelli. He grades us after every game and that’s all that matters.”

Marinelli’s grades clearly don’t resemble PFF’s. If they did, the Cowboys would not have re-signed him as a free agent in the offseason, even if it is just a one-year that counts $665,000 against the cap. In addition to an $80,000 signing bonus, the Cowboys guaranteed $200,000 of his base salary.

What’s funny is that the Cowboys use PFF’s services, like many teams across the NFL.

“He’s a very smart guy,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s tough. He runs to the ball. He’s more productive than you think he is. He makes a lot of little plays. He’s very good with his gap discipline. He’s very good knowing his job and doing his job, and sometimes it’s a little bit unheralded, but it’s important to being a good defensive team. He’s a sneaky guy because he’s around the ball a lot. He chases the ball a lot and really impacts the game in a quiet way.”

Hayden isn’t a world beater but the Cowboys’ feelings and the PFF ratings show the divide that can arise between coaches and analytics. Optimally the Cowboys would like to play him fewer snaps but they know what he is and that’s, as Garrett said, solid.

“I obviously can do a better job,” Hayden said. “Just improve each year, trying to get to the quarterback. I get there a couple of times, but I’ve got to finish the job. I know that. There’s always room to improve. I’ll never put a ceiling on myself. I’m always trying to get better and help this team. It’s team first. That’s how I look at it. If I can make guys better around me, help them, that’s all I’m trying to do.”