New York Jets – The Curious Case of Vidal Hazelton

Mike O’Connor on New York Jets WR Vidal Hazelton, who has had a wild NFL journey…can he make the 2013 team?

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John Idzik has certainly made a splash with Jet fans this offseason, but few remember how he kicked off his tenure with his first transaction. Well, that would take us back to January 23rd of 2013, when John Idzik brought in wide receiver Vidal Hazelton and signed him to a reserve/future contract.

Fans cringed when they discovered that Hazelton had ties with Mark Sanchez in his past, adding him to an unflattering list of former and current Jets – Patrick Turner, Scotty McKnight and Konrad Reuland. Mike Tannenbaum executed this tactic to little success throughout his time with the Jets.  However, the depressing presence of Tannenbaum doesn’t have to linger. Hazelton is a very intriguing case, unlike the other three who have simply spent time on a team with Sanchez, or have been good friends.

The Story

Back in 2006, Hazelton was one of the top recruits in all of the nation. He chose USC over multiple other offers, and started at receiver in his sophomore year nine out of the their thirteen games.  Hazelton’s raw ability allowed him to find his place early on, and with the help of quarterback Mark Sanchez, he led the team with 50 catches for 540 yards and four touchdowns. Sanchez was particularly fantastic for the Trojans that year, and tended to spread the offense while dispensing his throws to multiple different targets. Thus, Hazelton’s statistics weren’t off of the charts.  However, he provided a spark with consistent play and a couple of phenomenal, highlight-reel catches. It was not a stretch to claim big things were on the horizon for the young product.

In 2008, the reality of a top-level program finally had a toll on Hazelton, when he suffered a high ankle sprain in USC’s season opene and the coaching staff wasn’t up for waiting on Hazelton to get back up to speed. Receivers like Ronald Johnson, Patrick Turner, and Damien Williams managed to bury Hazelton into a very small role, despite the fact that all three of those given receivers have hardly achieved mediocrity as a whole in the NFL. The forgotten talent would later respectfully state, “USC is a great place. It’s filled up with athletes. If somebody’s not 100 percent they’ve got to pass them up. I would have done the same thing if I was a coach at USC.”

To make matters worse, Hazelton’s grandfather was diagnosed with cancer around the same time he was healthy enough to come back from his ankle sprain. With the combined factors of his hazy future on the football field and the desire to be closer to his grandfather in his time of need, the decision was made to transfer. After a handful of schools unsurprisingly expressed interest in the obvious talent, Hazelton chose Cincinnati.

The desperate receiver was then left to make a plea to become eligible immediately.  Predictably, the NCAA denied his request, and the talent who was once looked upon as a probable bloomer for possibly the best school in the country was left with one year of eligibility at Cincinnati, without playing a snap of football in more than a full year.

Hazelton kept striving and moving forward. He practiced hard and was ready to be a likely star for the Bearcats. However, what would this unfortunate story be without another major bump in the road?

In the Bearcats opener versus Fresno State, Hazelton went down and later found out he tore his ACL. Devastation had definitely been reached at this low point, but the hard worker only persevered further. In a remarkable comeback, Hazelton was ready to play again by December.  Due to certain circumstances, however, his coaches and doctors advised him to sit out the remainder of the season so he didn’t have to risk another injury. Thus, Hazelton would be ready to pull out the stake and continue his comeback to the NFL.

Hazelton wasn’t drafted in the 2011 Draft like some thought he would be in the later rounds, and didn’t even garner any significant looked as an UDFA, which came as a shock to many fans who had seen the things Hazelton did in high school and in his one full year with playing time at USC.  Yet, teams stuck around for him before the 2012 season’s start. He latched on with the Chargers at the end of that July, but was cut on the day of the Bolts’ last preseason game.

The Bengals kept Hazelton waiting as a Free Agent until they scooped him up in December of 2011, and he latched on to a practice squad spot until the following year, when he was cut after their last preseason game. He was signed to the Titans practice squad only a week afterwards, but couldn’t hang on for long there, either. One could safely assume that barely playing any meaningful snaps for more than four years had an effect on the youngster.

The full circle was then complete on that January day, when John Idzik made his first official transaction as the Jets’ new General Manager. At only 25 years old, it is without a doubt still in the equation for a Hazelton surge, as he looks to make a Jets’ roster depleted with talent at wide receiver. With fellow unproven camp-bodies in Titus Ryan, Royce Pollard, Joe Collins, Thomas Mayo, and Jordan White, Hazelton could surely make the 2013 roster if he can find the stride he once had. Of course, Hazelton would have to also beat out underwhelming Clyde Gates and veteran Ben Obomanu, while holding off undrafted rookies KJ Stroud, Ryan Spadola, Zach Rogers, and Marcus Davis.

Sure, that is a considerable list of guys clawing for a roster spot just as hard as Hazelton is.  However, it is a fair assessment that not one from the lists has noticeably separated themselves from the pack. A roster spot could surely be in the young journeyman’s future if the Jets bring six receivers into opening weekend of the 2013 season.

The Player

Vidal Hazelton stands 6’2, and weighs approximately 210 lbs. He has a filled out frame and a smooth build. He won’t blow you away with his speed, and he only managed a 4.5 second forty time. Unfortunately, his acceleration doesn’t help make up for it; it is also underwhelming.  However, that isn’t where Hazelton will impress you.

While he isn’t exceptionally quick in his hips, either (where it is most important, in my opinion), Hazelton has choppy feet that aid him in running very precise routes. In addition, I found that Vidal is a very aware player. Not only does he locate defenders who are assigned to his blocking assignments well versus the run when he’s in motion, but he also helps out his quarterback by extending his routes, rounding them off, and coming back to the play when a play has faltered.

Not only is he sturdy in the technical components of his game, but he really wows with his gifted catching ability. He possesses consistently dominant body control around the catch, he comes back to the ball when it is coming his way, and he doesn’t shy away from contact over the middle or defenders contesting his catch.

When watching his practice film, Hazleton can be caught jawing with his own teammates when they jab him excessively off of his routes, but returns the favor when beating his man in one on one coverage. And because of his natural strength and competitiveness, you will rarely see Hazelton get taken advantage of when pressed or interfered with to an acceptable degree when covered.

Lastly, Hazelton makes up for his lack of speed and consistent explosiveness after the catch with explosiveness around the actual catch. Not only does he possess consistent catching skills, but his fantastic leaping ability allows for him to snag passes that test his full range of wingspan, even when covered (thanks to that stellar body control he maintains).

One might think I’m over-hyping a receiver who hasn’t found a way to get on an NFL roster in two years. I might be, but I know for a fact that the tape is impressive. Granted, Hazelton isn’t a quick or fast receiver, which have almost become given qualities for dominant receivers in today’s league, but he impresses in other areas that aren’t noticeable in full until actual game time, when he’s winning contested passes that other fringe-roster players simply cannot corral.

Vidal Hazelton has undoubtedly come a long way, and he’s faced his fair share of obstacles in his journey to an NFL roster. For all we know, that journey could never end. Yet, it’s nearly the summer and Hazelton finds himself with as good an opportunity as ever.