GREEN BAY – And then there was one.
Prior to the draft, Iowa State wide receiver Matthew Eaton was getting calls from around a dozen teams showing interest in making him a late-round pick, or signing him as a college free agent.
But by the time the final rounds of the draft actually arrived, his suitors had shrunk to a single team – the Green Bay Packers.
“I thought I was going to get way more (offers), so I’m not sure what happened,” Eaton said shortly after arriving in Green Bay amongst 10 other undrafted rookies, the Packers’ eight-player draft class, and several tryout hopefuls for this weekend’s rookie minicamp.
“But I’m here now.”
The Packers are glad he is and expect the 6-foot-4, 211-pound receiver to compete amidst a young position group that didn’t add any draft picks this year, but has three from a year ago plus additional holdovers from the roster and practice squad with minimal NFL experience.
Every undrafted player has his story, and Eaton’s is about as under-the-radar as it gets. He wasn’t invited to the Senior Bowl, the East-West Shrine Game nor the scouting combine, getting asked only to attend the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
If he’s been overlooked, there are discernible reasons for it.
For one, he’s coming from an Iowa State offense that in 2018 featured running back David Montgomery and receiver Hakeem Butler, two first-team All-Big 12 Conference stars. Montgomery was drafted in the third round by the Bears and Butler with the top pick in the fourth round by the Cardinals.
They were at least part of the reason for Eaton’s modest statistics (48 catches, 512 yards, six TDs) over the last two years in Ames, but Eaton said he simply tried to capitalize on any chance that came his way.
“I wouldn’t say their skills overshadowed mine, it was just the scheme of the offense,” he said. “Both those guys are fantastic players, and they rightfully were supposed to get the ball as much as they did.
“For me, I just tried to do whatever I could without the ball in my hands, whether blocking, route-running, setting rub routes, and just trying to make sure I’m open anytime the quarterback was coming my way.”
For another, Eaton began his college career at Temple but transferred after two years to Pearl River Community College in Poplarville, Miss., a little over an hour from where he went to high school (Pascagoula, Miss.), before eventually landing at Iowa State.
During his year in junior college, injuries at quarterback had him catching passes from a fourth-stringer by season’s end, yet he still did enough to catch the eye of Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell and his staff.
“It’s just always knowing that somebody’s watching you, regardless of what your situation or circumstance is,” Eaton said regarding what kept him plugging away. “Iowa State, I believe they had their eyes on me ever since I left Temple, actually, because (the coaches) were coming from Toledo, and it worked out perfectly. All the stars aligned and it worked out exactly how it was supposed to.”
Upon arriving in Ames, Eaton felt he was more “seasoned” and a better student of the game in the film room than he’d ever been, and he made a quick friend in fellow receiver Allen Lazard, another Cyclone ahead of Eaton on the depth chart who put up big numbers in 2017.
Lazard’s rookie season in the NFL began with going undrafted and ended by signing with the Packers from Jacksonville’s practice squad in mid-December. The two are once again teammates and competitors, a familiar situation for Eaton and a relationship he looks forward to resuming.
“He definitely mentored me and took me underneath his wing,” Eaton said of Lazard. “I learned a lot from him.
“It’s the game we signed up for. I want to see him do well. I would love for him to make the team. I know he’s more than capable of doing it, and I know he feels the same way about me.”
The competition at receiver promises to be fierce, with so many young prospects fighting for a spot. While learning Head Coach Matt LaFleur’s offensive playbook as fast as he can, and prove he can make the same types of contested catches he did in college, Eaton also wants to dive into special teams to increase his value.
Calling himself a “utility guy,” Eaton said he’s done everything from block on the front line on kickoff returns to play gunner on the punt team.
Simply put, he’ll be grateful for any opportunity he gets. As the draft wound down, while expecting to hear from all those teams he’d talked to previously, he got a call from the Packers in the sixth round to check in, then again from them in the seventh.
A third call came after the draft from Green Bay’s new receivers coach, Alvis Whitted, and at that point, none of those other teams mattered anymore.
“He just welcomed me and said he likes my film a lot,” Eaton said. “He likes what I can do in the slot, being a big guy, being able to move laterally, and that I run exceptional routes.
“I have a lot of improvement to do as well as getting adjusted to the NFL playing style, but he was excited for me to come in and get a shot.”