Last March the Cowboys elected to let three-year starter Nick Hayden walk away as a free agent. Always more of a coach’s darling than an analytics favorite, Hayden stuck around as long as he did for his work ethic and attitude over actual performance. The Cowboys finally decided they needed more and moved on. Hayden remains a free agent right now.
Dallas signed Cedric Thornton from the Eagles to play beside Tyrone Crawford. They also used a third-round pick on Maliek Collins from Nebraska, who was expected to contribute quickly as an immediate fit for Rod Marinelli’s scheme. With Terrell McClain also returning and guys like David Irving and Jack Crawford able to play inside, there’s been no reason to expect Hayden to return.
Now we know that Collins has a broken foot and will miss most or even all of training camp and preseason. We also know that defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory will miss up to the first four weeks of the season with suspensions. These factors could have opened the door for Hayden’s return.
Collins may not be able to immediately contribute even once healthy, having missed all of this practice work. He could be placed on the PUP list, opening a roster spot and depth need at defensive tackle. Dallas will hope that veteran Terrell McClain can finally stay healthy and be the immediate backup.
Hoping in McClain is hardly good bet. He has had injury issues throughout his career and especially since joining the Cowboys. Even if Dallas doesn’t feel the need to bring back Hayden now, would another McClain injury cause them to pick the phone?
What if Dallas feels they need to play Tyrone Crawford at defensive end while Lawrence and Gregory are out? The group of Benson Mayowa, Charles Tapper, Ryan Russell, Jack Crawford, and David Irving should hopefully produce two capable starters. But “should” allows for the possibility of failure. Dallas could elect to re-sign Hayden as a temporary starter.
This is all assuming, of course, that Hayden still want to play football. He did visit with Seattle in free agency but remains unsigned. He turned 30 last February and may be already mentally checked out from the game. Given the rise of early retirements in the NFL it would not be hard to imagine.
There is a precedent for a late re-signing like this. Last year Dallas tried to find better options at fullback before ultimately bringing back Tyler Clutts in late May. In the absence of a clear upgrade, something you’re comfortable with is often the preferred option.
In all likelihood Dallas will stick with younger players given the temporary nature of their issues. They will suffer through whatever early-season problems comes from Collins, Gregory, and Lawrence’s absences and hope that the young guys benefit from the real-game work.
However, with games against the Giants and Washington to open the year, you could hardly blame Dallas for being worried about takings risks. Nick Hayden may be a low-risk, low-reward player but he was their starter when they went 12-4 and won the NFC East.
He may be closer to returning than you think.