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Fast-rising Hayden

CHARLOTTE -- You don't have to work hard to convince Panthers rookie Nick Hayden that things can change quickly in the NFL. 

Three and a half weeks ago, he was toiling on the Panthers' practice squad, the same place he'd been throughout the regular season.  But injuries to Gary Gibson and Maake Kemoeatu and eventually Damione Lewis pressed the rookie into duty.

Barely 24 hours after being promoted to the 53-man roster, he was lining up
against the defending world champions, the New York Giants, and their tackle-sized running back Brandon Jacobs.

"He was a big boy," Hayden said of his first attempts to tackle a runner who weighs more than 260 pounds.

Even if the former Wisconsin Badger didn't know what to expect, at least he had the confidence of his position coach, Sal Sunseri.

"He kept his head up and battled," said Sunseri. "His time on the practice squad was beneficial.  He was at every practice and every meeting, so when the call came, he was ready."

And that call could come again next Saturday -- although this time, Hayden would carry first-team experience, having made his first career start at New Orleans as Kemoeatu and Lewis watched from the sideline. 

With the Panthers needing a win to seal a division title and a bye week and the league's top-ranked offense on the other side of the line of scrimmage, the conditions weren't ideal for a rookie to make his first start, but Hayden held his own.

"He wasn't in over his head," Sunseri said.

For his part, Hayden is taking it all in stride.

"Everyone is good at this level," Hayden said.  "In college you'll get some guys who are average. At this level, they're all good."

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