Tennessee's first-team offense played a stellar quarter-and-a-half against the New Orleans Saints in their 31-24 loss during the team's second preseason game, but the main attraction was wideout Justin Hunter.
Hunter displayed the skill set that has him as a popular fantasy sleeper on a pair of excellent catches: a well-thrown end-zone fade from Jake Locker in the first quarter and a 64-yard bomb from Zach Mettenberger over the top of the defense in the second quarter.
Hunter's enigmatic first season makes him one of the key factors for a Tennessee Titans resurgence in the AFC South. Should he play like he did last season, where his route-running was shaky and he often struggled to get out of his breaks, a chain reaction will likely occur that will slow down the Tennessee offense. That left Kendall Wright on his own, and made Nate Washington soak up targets because the then-rookie receiver couldn't be relied on to get open.
Hunter has been making a lot of those catches in practice. #Titans— Paul Kuharsky (@PaulKuharskyNFL) August 16, 2014
Hunter's flawed rookie season was all about the lack of integrated technique—from a physical standpoint, you couldn't build a better receiver than Hunter. He ticks every tool of an ideal NFL wideout, from size, to hands, to speed, to catch radius.
Earlier this offseason, then-Football Outsiders writer Rivers McCown (hey, that's me!) looked at Hunter's targets from 2013 earlier in the offseason. What I found was that Hunter was often passive when the ball was up for grabs—what some scouts would call the "my ball" mentality was lacking. Hunter also spent a vast majority of the season running corner, post and seam routes. The Tennessee coaching staff had seen enough to know that the rookie wasn't ready to handle more sophisticated patterns.
The buzz from training camp, however, has been that Hunter is attacking the ball more often and coming down with more of those 50-50 balls that hit the turf in 2013. Perhaps some of that can be attributed to receivers coach Shawn Jefferson, who has been giving Hunter a tough-love training camp. Jefferson made Hunter wear a Just A Guy jersey earlier in the week.
The highlight-reel catches at camp are one thing, but catching four of five balls for 111 yards and two touchdowns isn't your typical JAG rerun story—especially how easy Hunter made it look.
Jake Locker played a very typical Jake Locker game. His stat line was much better than it was in Week 1's monsoon in Tennessee—Locker completed 8-of-11 passes for 75 yards and a touchdown—but he was bailed out by his receivers on a few plays. The Titans appear to be sticking to their 2013 script with Locker, giving him a large number of comeback routes to ease his accuracy issues. When Locker's touch does work, he throws one of the prettiest balls in the league. It's the reason scouts are still dreaming on him even after all these years. The touchdown throw to Hunter on the fade was placed absolutely perfectly. If Locker and Hunter begin to develop some chemistry in the red zone, it would go a long way towards revamping the Tennessee attack.
Justin Hunter is a heck of a weapon in the red zone. If he stays healthy, he's going to do what Kenny Britt was supposed to #Titans— Jim Wyatt (@jwyattsports) August 16, 2014
And on this Friday in New Orleans, you began to see what the Titans were thinking when they put this team together. With Locker's arm, an offensive line that shoved the Saints around in the run game and some outstanding catches from Wright, Hunter and Dexter McCluster, Ken Whisenhunt's vision for this offense was apparent.
On paper, the Titans very well may have the best team in the AFC South. Of course, they may have had the best team in the division last year, too. They just didn't have the best quarterback—or even one that could manage to stay healthy the entire season.
Consistency will remain a question until we see how the Titans answer the bell for the regular season. But tonight, we saw a glimpse of what could be if everything on the offensive side of the ball breaks right.