As the clock ticked toward the official start of NFL free agency and the new league year back in March, Rams defensive end
Coming off a breakout year in which he proved to be the Rams’ most versatile defensive lineman, the stars seemed to align perfectly for Hayes to hit the market and become one of the league’s most sought after defensive free agents.
On the heels of a new “pre-negotiation” window the league allowed for agents and teams to talk in the days leading up to the start of free agency, it was clear that Hayes would indeed be a hot commodity should he hit the market.
The Rams, of course, wanted their defensive line’s Swiss Army Knife to return and were willing to offer a solid financial package to bring him Hayes back. But given the presence of ends
More often than not, players in similar circumstances would look at the situation and auction themselves to the highest bidder. For Hayes, that was never an option.
“I had other opportunities to maybe be a starter or something but I like my position here and I accept it,” Hayes said. “I enjoy it. I would have come back here for a lot less. The opportunity that I have here to play and be around the guys and see the direction this team is going in, I couldn’t go anywhere else.”
So it was that only hours before he was to hit the open market, Hayes agreed to a three-year deal worth more than $10 million to remain with the Rams as teams all over the league were left with checks in hand.
“I had other teams that were really interested,” Hayes said. “I convinced my agent to tell him this is where I really want to be. It’s not really about the money to me. It’s about where I’m comfortable. I had been around (Coach Jeff) Fish(er) my first three years and then I came to St. Louis and it was like no dropoff. We still had that bond. I just didn’t want anything else.”
Considering the mutually beneficial relationship that Hayes and the Rams forged when he first signed with the team as an unrestricted free agent on April 12, 2012, it made nothing but sense for that partnership to continue into the future.
After Fisher drafted Hayes to Tennessee using a fourth-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, he played three seasons under Fisher in Nashville and one more year for Mike Munchak before becoming a free agent for the first time.
During those first four seasons, Hayes had been used mostly as a rotational defensive end, playing in 48 games with 12 starts and posting nine sacks along the way.
Given the chance to reunite with Fisher and provide depth behind Long and Quinn, Hayes came to the Rams before last season knowing there was an opportunity to reach the potential he’d only flashed during his time in Tennessee.
Having familiar faces such as Fisher and assistant head coach Dave McGinnis in place helped Hayes adjust to his new surroundings with little trouble.
“My personality is that I am not a standoffish type guy so my thing is I knew I was going to come in and I was going to show who I was and they would either accept it or they wouldn’t,” Hayes said. “I’m not really one of those who is good at changing it up and putting on a different act. I am who I am so like I said, I came here, fell in love with the guys, my teammates are awesome. The biggest thing for me that made me comfortable is I can go through this whole facility and I can say there is not one person I dislike. Everybody here offers some type of value for me and I just couldn’t see myself going anywhere else.”
The affable and fun-loving Hayes quickly bonded with his defensive linemates and line coaches Mike Waufle and Clyde Simmons. He’d spend extra time after nearly every practice with Simmons and Waufle helped him expand his pass rush repertoire.
“They helped me be a better pass rusher,” Hayes said. “I play the run a whole lot better. We really focus on the things that were my weaknesses and trying to make my strengths a lot stronger.”
Beyond the technique work, Fisher, Waufle and Co. quickly realized that the 6’3, 272 pound Hayes could offer a unique ability to play all over the line. He often lined up at end on running downs but would slip inside to tackle on third downs and obvious passing situations.
Hayes proved virtually unlimited in where he could line up along the line, even playing de facto nose tackle at times and finding ways to come up with sacks from that spot even though he’d never played the position before.
By the time the year was finished, Hayes had racked up 38 tackles, a career-high seven sacks (good for third on the team), 13 quarterback pressures, five quarterback hits and a fumble recovery.
“I think I have just really tapped into how good I could be,” Hayes said. “I think I am going to just continue to get better. I am starting to learn now things that I didn’t know when I was younger. I am a lot better now than I was when I was younger just because I listen more and pay more attention to detail.”
Now that it’s been established that Hayes will be a Ram for the foreseeable future, it should only help him continue to elevate his game even further.
Hayes and his fellow defensive linemen are essentially inseparable, constantly having fun and cracking jokes on one another while never straying from their pursuit of getting better and helping the team win.
That family atmosphere undoubtedly helped Hayes push to stay in St. Louis.
“The guys understood you have got to do what’s best for you but we would like you back here,” Hayes said. “My D-line did have the biggest influence on me. I didn’t like the idea of being away from them and having to learn a bunch of new guys again.”
Much like the rest of his teammates during this offseason program, Hayes is enthusiastic about the direction of the team, even more so than he was last year when he first signed with the team.
The changes not only in Hayes but in the rest of the team have Hayes believing that the decision to stay in St. Louis will pay off well beyond his own individual success.
“I see a different mentality than when I first got here,” Hayes said. “When we first got here we were trying to figure out what the direction we were going to try to go in and now we are trying to get somewhere and be a championship type of team. Guys are in here working hard every day to try to get better.”