Tennessee Titans wide receiver Justin Hunter played his college ball at the University of Tennessee, so I'm familiar with him as a player. Standing 6'4 and loaded with ridiculous athletic ability, Hunter exploded onto the scene as a freshman at UT and appeared to be ready to revive Tennessee's reputation as Wide Receiver U almost single-handedly. Unfortunately, he ended up tearing his ACL during his sophomore campaign, which ultimately hindered his overall development. He was good enough in his junior season for the Titans to draft him with the 34th pick overall in 2013, but he was still going to be somewhat of a project in the NFL.
Hunter has been up and down as a pro. Headed into his third season, he finds his career at a crossroads after the Titans used another second-round pick on another physical freak with tremendous athletic ability, Dorial Green-Beckham. DGB is going to push like hell for playing time with the amount of talent he brings to the table, and if one guy is getting more playing time then logic dictates that someone has to start getting less.
The reasons I think Hunter will be able to fend of Green-Beckham's challenge and finally show what he can really do are pretty simple and straight forward. First, while he has certainly had his share of drops, Hunter has had to deal with some awful quarterback play in his first two seasons.
I mean, the dude was a high jumper in college and had nearly a 40-inch vertical at the combine, but he rarely saw any jump balls that were actually thrown where he could realistically catch them. Don't get me started on how often he was also underthrown on deep balls. Maybe that wouldn't be such a big deal if the Titans ran him on other routes, but they didn't. That's how you end up only catching 28 passes in 13 games last season and still average nearly 18 yards a catch. Yeah, that adds up to almost 500 yards on the season. If they could've gotten Hunter the ball on some shorter routes, he would've caught more passes for more yards, even if his per catch average fell a little.
But nope, he was almost exclusively a deep threat on a team with no quarterback who could consistently hit him deep.
That should all change with the arrival of the second overall in the draft this spring, quarterback Marcus Mariota. I've been impressed with touch on deep balls. I think he will finally allow Hunter to show what he can really be as a deep threat.
I also think that Titans receiver coach Shawn Jefferson finally respects Hunter enough to lay off the kid a little bit, which helps. Jefferson is one of those old school guys. I guess maybe Hunter presented himself as a little soft initially, so he became one of Jefferson's favorite whipping boys over the course of the last season. After Hunter had his season ended because he got blown up on a passing play and injured his spleen, I don't think Jefferson will question his toughness anymore.
The shame of it all is that before the injury Hunter's progression on the field was pretty apparent on film. You could almost sense that he was due for a big game, if they could just get the quarterback position sorted out. I don't think Jefferson has forgotten about that maturation. Now that he presumably trusts Hunter more than he did at the beginning of last season, I think he will start to build him up rather than continue to try to break him down.
Lastly, I think that Hunter will have physically matured a bit more this offseason as well. I thought he was finally back to full speed last season, and the dude can run like a gazelle. Adding a little more weight to his frame, I expect him to be active for all 16 games for the first time in his career.
Hunter has already shown that when he gets legitimate opportunities to make plays downfield he can be a game breaker. Since he finally has a quarterback who can actually get the ball to him in those situations, I wouldn't be surprised if his numbers didn't literally double this season.
Yeah, I know what that means. Around 60 balls and close to 1000 yards. Those are big time numbers, and I think Justin Hunter is more than capable of achieving them.