Packers Sign Ex-Texans Rookie WR as Injuries Mount

Damon Hazelton Packers

Getty Wide receiver Damon Hazelton #14 of the Virginia Tech Hokies stiff arms defensive back Malik Wilder #5 of the Rhode Island Rams during a long touchdown reception in the first half at Lane Stadium on October 12, 2019 in Blacksburg, Virginia.

The Green Bay Packers are adding an intriguing rookie wide receiver to the mix at training camp as injuries continue to hold back some of their more promising roster hopefuls at the position.

According to Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle, the Packers signed former Virginia Tech standout and rookie wide receiver Damon Hazelton Jr. to their 85-man roster on Friday, August 20, after hosting him for a tryout in Green Bay four days earlier.

Hazelton caught 82 passes for 1,329 yards and 16 touchdowns over two seasons at Virginia Tech before spending his final season at Missouri as a graduate transfer. Despite taking some time to adjust with the Tigers, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound wideout still managed to average 13.2 yards per reception on his 30 catches.

After going unselected in the 2021 NFL draft, Hazelton signed as a UDFA with the Houston Texans, but he was released after the first few weeks of training camp on August 7 as the team trimmed down its overcrowded receiver room. Now, he will get another shot at making an NFL roster with the Packers as they search for a sixth (and potentially seventh) wide receiver to fit into their 2021 rotation.

The Packers confirmed the move later Friday afternoon, cutting recently signed rookie cornerback Dominique Martin in a corresponding move to clear a roster spot for Hazelton. They are also just four days away from the NFL’s next cutdown deadline at 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday, August 24 — at which point all teams are required to have their roster numbers reduced to 80 players.

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Hazelton’s Size Could Give Advantage

Assuming the Packers don’t ditch one of their current wideouts as a corresponding move to add Hazelton, the rookie faces a step battle to make the Packers’ 53-man roster heading into the 2021 season. There is likely only one roster spot available behind the ensemble of Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb and Amari Rodgers, and Hazelton’s competition include the likes of veteran Devin Funchess (more than 2,200 receiving yards in the NFL) and former sixth-round pick Equanimeous St. Brown.

If Hazelton holds an advantage anywhere, though, it is his size. At 6-foot-3, he would be the fifth-tallest receiver on the Packers’ roster behind Lazard (6-5), St. Brown (6-5), Valdes-Scantling (6-4) and Funchess (6-4) and regularly made good use of his height and athleticism to pull in contested catches in college. He also carries over skills as a run-blocker that are a must-have for receivers in the Packers’ current offense.

Here’s what’s Lance Zierlein wrote about Hazelton in his pre-draft profile:

Hazelton has the size and wingspan that will immediately garner attention from evaluators. His Missouri tape wasn’t necessarily bad, but he didn’t look like the same guy who played at Virginia Tech. He can win jump balls with his catch radius and leaping ability but also has the strength and length to help create separation in the red zone or in tight quarters. He’s not sudden or fast, so he’ll have to get used to wearing man coverage, but he has some skill in moving past press to get himself into the route with decent timing. He has a shot to make a team if he can improve his consistency.

Funchess & Winfree Losing Ground

The Packers’ luck with wide receivers hasn’t been the greatest this summer. Less than a week into camp, undrafted rookie Bailey Gaithers unexpectedly retired on August 3. Juwann Winfree, a standout in spring workouts and early camp practices, injured his shoulder during the Packers Family Night on August 7 and has not yet returned to practice. St. Brown missed about a week of practice with hamstring issues.

The injury bug has now even bitten Funchess, who was carted off the field with an apparent hamstring injury during the team’s joint practice with the New York Jets on Wednesday, August 18. Since then, Funchess has not returned to practice and his status remains unknown heading into the Packers’ second preseason game against the Jets this Saturday, August 21.

To some degree, the Packers may have no choice but to let injuries determine who wins the final one or two receiving spots. Winfree will have missed two critical opportunities if he is unable to go against the Jets this weekend, which would make it extremely difficult for him to make up ground in such a short amount of time. He could even end up being included in the next round of cuts.

Funchess will likely be given the benefit of the doubt until the 53-man cutdown, not only as a veteran but also as someone who just last week caught six passes for 70 yards in the Packers’ preseason opener against the Texans. Again, though, it could — and, frankly, should — come down to availability when deciding on a deep-depth role. If Funchess’ injury in practice prevents him from participating, even if only for a week, there may not be a place for him on the in-season roster.

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