RICHMOND — Forced to leave the game Thursday night after he was poked in his left eye, Je’Ron Hamm showed up to practice two days later with a plastic visor screwed onto his helmet.
Hamm doesn’t want to take any risks. He knows he can’t afford to miss any more time.
The tight end, once among a trio of players fighting for the slightest of opportunities at the position, now finds himself squarely in the Washington Redskins’ roster picture following season-ending injuries to Logan Paulsen and Niles Paul.
“I wish I didn’t have to leave with a poked eye,” said Hamm, the eye still red and swollen after he burst a blood vessel. “Those few reps that I got were huge, and to get settled in, that was my first game ever at tight end, so it was good to get that game experience.”
A wide receiver who went undrafted out of Louisiana-Monroe last year, the 6-foot-3, 236-pound Hamm spent the summer with the New Orleans Saints before joining the Redskins’ practice squad at the start of the season.
Where he was a year ago, compared to where he is now, couldn’t be any different. Paulsen sprained the big toe on his right foot, an injury commonly known as turf toe, in the Redskins’ practice on Aug. 6. Four days later, Jordan Reed strained one of his hamstrings, and three days after that, in the preseason opener against the Cleveland Browns, Paul broke his left ankle.
Hamm, Chase Dixon and rookie Devin Mahina figured to push for one spot, likely a role on the practice squad once the preseason ended and the initial 53-man roster was finalized.
Instead, there’s a chance that two of the three will be on the field when the Redskins open the regular season Sept. 13 against the Miami Dolphins.
“It’s been unfortunate, but it’s an opportunity for those guys,” tight ends coach Wes Phillips said. “We like some things that all three of them can do. Coming into the camp, we didn’t think that they’d be in the position they are now to really be fighting for reps, but that’s where we’re at. They’re great kids, they’re working hard and they’re doing the best that they can.”
Dixon saw the most time of any offensive player on Thursday, logging 44 snaps and pulling in one catch — a 17-yarder from Colt McCoy late in the third quarter.
Phillips said the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Dixon, also a wide receiver in college, is the best blocker of the bunch. The ability to protect the quarterback and open holes in the running game will likely be the deciding factor, as Paul and Paulsen were each utilized in two-tight end sets during the first two weeks of training camp as the Redskins committed themselves to focusing on rushing the ball.
In that regard, Paul can serve as an example for Dixon and Hamm. A wide receiver during his first season with the Redskins, when he carried just 220 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame, Paul gradually added muscle and had gained 30 pounds by the time training camp opened late last month.
Working with Phillips helped Paul pick up the appropriate footwork and the correct blocking techniques to hold off defenders, and the tight end made up for his lack of size and length with his strength.
“I plan on putting on more weight, like Niles did, to help me be a lot more firm in my blocking, where people can’t shed you as much,” Dixon said. “The technique and the footwork goes a long way. Coach Phillips has taken me so far from where I was last year with his coaching, so if I can focus on the technique, the footwork, getting my helmet in the right place, I’ll be all right.”
Last season, the Redskins occasionally utilized right tackle Tom Compton as a tight end in a jumbo package, strutting him out onto the field mostly in rushing situations. Gruden and Phillips each said that Compton, who has also worked at right guard during training camp, could continue in that role, but that they couldn’t see Compton running routes and being a threat as a receiver.
At the very least, the Redskins have found some help for the final three weeks of the preseason. After working out three players on Sunday, they signed D.J. Williams, a fifth-round pick of the Green Bay Packers in 2011, and Ernst Brun Jr., who went undrafted out of Iowa State in 2014.
General manager Scot McCloughan indirectly deflected the idea of former tight end Chris Cooley, now a radio analyst for the team, ending his retirement, saying Sunday morning that he’s “not going there.”
Hamm can’t think about any of those decisions. His focus remains on his blocking and technique, and he understands the weight of the opportunity that he, and the others, now have.
“I just want to go out there and do well for the guys that we did lose, to go out there and not have a drop-off in the production at the tight end position,” Hamm said. “You’ve got to step up very fast, going from kind of the young guy to watching those guys do it to then being the guy to do it. That’s probably the biggest step. Either get with it or get gone, so I’m going to get with it.”