It’s been an eventful holiday weekend for North Augusta native Matt Hazel. The star receiver at North Augusta High School and Coastal Carolina had just completed his first NFL training camp after being selected in the sixth round of this year’s draft by the Miami Dolphins.
Hazel showed steady improvement throughout the preseason, and even caught a touchdown in Miami’s final preseason game against the St. Louis Rams last week. But when the Dolphins set their final 53-man roster for the regular season Saturday, Hazel didn’t survive the last round of cuts.
He wasn’t out of work for long.
After clearing waivers Sunday, Hazel was quickly re-signed to Miami’s practice squad. He’ll rejoin the Dolphins, who were anxious to keep him.
“It’s been pretty crazy. … When they cut me, they told me they wanted me on the practice squad and that they have big plans for me. They were worried I’d get claimed by another team,” Hazel said on the phone Monday. “We had a great battle at the receiver position in Miami and they kept five guys, but wanted me on the practice squad. If anybody goes down, I’ll be the first one added to the active roster.”
Although no team claimed Hazel, he said his agent received calls from other NFL organizations about adding him to their practice squads. He stuck with the Dolphins and is optimistic this is the gateway to bigger and better things.
“It’s great, I’m still a part of the NFL,” the 22-year-old Hazel said of continuing his childhood dream of playing in the NFL. “I get to come out everyday, practice with the team and get better.”
Hazel said as a member of the practice squad he’ll be able to hone his skills. That will include physical fundamentals like sprinting and running routes, as well as catching the ball. He also mentioned its another chance to work on the mental side of the game, getting in the team’s classrooms to study football’s highest level of play.
“It’s almost like being redshirted,” Hazel said. “Everything happens for a reason, and I’ll be ready.”
Although he only has one preseason under his belt, it was a fairly eventful one for Hazel. He caught six passes for 87 yards and a touchdown. He was also on the receiving end of a violent hit in the Dolphins’ preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys.
After a pass near the goal line sailed out of Hazel’s reach, he was clocked by Cowboys safety Ahmad Dixon, who was penalized for unnecessary roughness. Dixon was also fined $22,050 for hitting a defenseless player in the head and neck area and was cut on Monday.
When asked about the play, Hazel laughed and didn’t have any negative comments from the rough play he was able to walk away from.
“It’s just one of those things that happens. It was a big hit, but I got up and had no bad effects,” said Hazel, who only had positive impressions from training camp. “It’s preseason, but it’s still the NFL. It’s a great opportunity and I was able to go out and show what I can do. I even caught my first touchdown.”
Although Hazel’s currently on the practice squad, that has been a successful route to playing in the NFL for some other players from the Aiken area. Williston-Elko alum Rafael Bush was an undrafted free agent who signed with the Atlanta Falcons’ practice squad. After joining the Denver Broncos playoff run in 2011, he signed with the New Orleans Saints where he’s established himself as one of the game’s top hitting safeties and is expected to be a major contributor this season.
Strom Thurmond alum Jakar Hamilton also started his NFL career on the practice squad. Another undrafted free agent, Hamilton signed with the Cowboys last season before being cut prior to the regular season. Like Miami did with Hazel, Dallas was quick to re-sign Hamilton to its practice squad before adding him to the 53-man roster for the end of the season.
Hamilton was recently suspended by the NFL for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Although he can’t have contact with the Cowboys for the next month and will miss the first four games of the regular season, he made the squad and is currently on the suspended list.
DeMarcus Lawrence is a Silver Bluff alum that was drafted. He was picked in the second round of this year’s draft by the Cowboys, but like Hamilton, will have to wait before making an impact in the regular season.
The rookie defensive end is expected to be moved to short-term injured reserve as he returns from foot surgery. Lawrence will have to miss the first eight games, but can start practicing after six weeks. The Cowboys hope Lawrence will be able to be a designated pass rusher over the final eight weeks of the season. When he broke his foot in training camp, he was close to becoming the starting right defensive end. By putting Lawrence on short-term injured reserve, the Cowboys would not be able to use the designation on another player this season.
South Aiken alum Dekota Watson is another area player currently in the NFL. The linebacker signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a free agent in the offseason, but missed a large portion of training camp because of an injury. He returned for the end of the preseason and is currently listed as a second-team outside linebacker on the depth chart.
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 15 years after graduating from Syracuse University.
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee Miami Dolphins wide receiver Matt Hazel (83) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during an NFL preseason game against the St. Louis Rams last Thursday. The North Augusta native was cut by Miami in its final roster but quickly resigned to the practice squad.×