Titans WR Justin Hunter Flying Under the Radar as NFL's Best-Kept Secret

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Titans WR Justin Hunter Flying Under the Radar as NFL's Best-Kept Secret
USA Today

Justin Hunter shouldn't need to look far for motivation this year.

The 23-year-old receiver is entering his second season in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans. Despite being incredibly talented, injuries and concerns over his focus caused him to fall out of the first round of the 2013 NFL draft.

In his first season in the league, Hunter didn't make a statistical case that he should've been a first-round pick. 

He was the 34th overall pick of the 2013 draft. He was the fourth receiver off the board, behind three who went in the first round. Tavon Austin, DeAndre Hopkins and Cordarrelle Patterson were all more productive rookies than Hunter after being selected before him.

Each first-round receiver had significantly more yards than Hunter and more than doubled his reception total. He did manage to match Austin and Patterson's number of touchdown receptions, but both of those players added rushing touchdowns, whereas Hunter didn't even have a rushing attempt.

Furthermore, Hunter was also suspended for a game after breaking team rules.

Ken Whisenhunt replaced Mike Munchak during the offseason, so Hunter also has a new coaching staff to impress to go along with his subdued production and suspension from his rookie season. When you consider all of the context, it's easy to see why Hunter is hiding in the shadows of other young receivers in the NFL.

Standing at 6'4" and 203 pounds, Hunter isn't used to being in anyone's shadow.

He isn't the type of receiver that you give carries to. His frame is too long and lean for that. Instead, he is a mismatch receiver with the athleticism and natural receiving ability to consistently threaten the deep third of the defense.

As a rookie, he averaged 19.7 yards per reception, despite playing most of the season with a quarterback who struggled to throw the ball down the field: Ryan Fitzpatrick. Hunter only had 18 receptions, but he also only played 340 snaps, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Part of the reason why he played so few snaps is how raw he was entering the league, but it also reflects how many options the Titans had.

Kendall Wright, a diminutive receiver who is one of the toughest receivers in the league to cover, and Nate Washington, who didn't drop a single pass last year, were the first-choice starters. Kenny Britt, Michael Preston, Damian Williams and tight end Delanie Walker were all competing for snaps behind those two.

Hunter finished third on the team in snaps among wide receivers. More importantly, he played significantly more snaps in the second half of the year than he did during the first half. That reflects how he earned the trust of the coaching staff on the field and became more comfortable the more he played.

Development is important for Hunter because he isn't a versatile, refined route-runner. He doesn't need to be in order to be an effective starter, though.

The main reason the Titans traded up to select Hunter at the top of the second round of the draft was his surreal athleticism. Comparisons to Randy Moss are inevitable because Hunter has a long, lean frame with the quickness and speed to be elusive in space. Also like Moss, he is aggressive when attacking the football.

Because of the success of players such as Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, a recent fascination with wide receiver height has taken over the league.

Being big is beneficial in certain ways, but only if the size matches the skill set. For a bigger wide receiver to be effective, he needs to understand how to get the most out of his size. Being physical at the catch point, catching the ball at its highest point and making contested catches are all very important.

Whenever Hunter lines up on the field, he is more than likely going to have a size advantage over the defensive back covering him. He showed off how he can take advantage of this on a number of occasions last year.

NFL.com
NFL.com
NFL.com

Having a 6'4" receiver with the ball skills to get the most out of his size advantage alleviates the pressure on the quarterback to throw accurately. Lofting the ball into the air to create a jump-ball situation should be considered an accurate pass when throwing to Hunter.

But it's not enough to just be a home run hitter as an NFL receiver—maybe if you're as physically dominant and consistent as Randy Moss was in that area, but Hunter hasn't proved to be that yet.

Instead, the focus shifts onto what Hunter can do in other areas of the field. One of the negatives of being a bigger receiver is that it can be much more difficult to work the middle of the field. Bigger receivers typically lack the quickness of smaller receivers and create bigger targets for opposing defensive backs to target.

Hunter showed off the requisite footwork and fluidity last year to suggest that he can be a well-rounded receiver in the future.

NFL.com

On this play, the Titans need to convert a 3rd-and-5 against press man coverage and a blitz. Hunter is lined up to the bottom of the screen against Trumaine Johnson. He plants his outside foot while turning infield to initially get free before running a staggered slant route to convert for a first down.

NFL.com

On this play, Hunter runs a 12-yard in route, beating the initial coverage and catching the ball in front of the incoming safety. He shows an understanding of where the marker is to convert for a first down. Hunter needs to be stronger at the catch point in these situations, but inconsistency at this stage of his career isn't a major concern, considering the type of talent he is.

Because he is still a very young player, we only need to see signs of ability at this stage of Hunter's career. His development will determine if he can be consistent enough to be relied upon moving forward.

If Jake Locker stays healthy this year, Hunter should have a good chance to lead the league in big plays. He is the kind of athlete who puts very little effort into sprinting down the field. Except for maybe Josh Gordon, who is suspended, there may not be a receiver in the NFL who can match Hunter while working in a straight line down the field.

NFL.com

Of Hunter's 18 receptions, four went for 40-plus yards. Gordon and A.J. Green led the league with nine, and they had a combined 185 receptions.

As Gordon proved last season, sometimes having surreal levels of athleticism and impressive ball skills can be enough to be an ultraproductive player. Gordon isn't a refined route-runner and had nine drops last year, according to Pro Football Focus, but he still finished the season with 1,646 yards.

Despite his flaws, Gordon was still able to put up big numbers because he could simply outrun the defense and is 6'3" with good ball skills. Gordon is heavier and stronger than Hunter, but he has also been on a professional weight/nutrition program for a year longer.

Hunter may not be the best young receiver in the NFL, but he is certainly among the most talented. In a better situation in 2014, he should be able to become a very productive NFL player.

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