No task is more difficult than identifying fantasy breakout stars each year, so owners should thank Justin Hunter.
His candidacy for the label is as obvious as it gets.
Owners are clearly weary of the former Tennessee star as he heads into his second year. He has an average draft position of 10.04, meaning he is No. 45 off the board at the position. It is hard to blame owners—Hunter caught just 18 passes last year, and the quarterback situation around him is fantasy-adverse, to say the least.
But a bevy of factors around him forecast a major breakout year, chief among them one simple facet—opportunity.
We know Hunter is an elite athlete. He stands at 6'4" and 203 pounds, blazed a 4.44 40-yard-dash time at the combine and wowed onlookers with a 39.5" vertical leap. But last season he was hardly used, while starting quarterback Jake Locker only appeared in seven games.
This year is different. Only Kendall Wright stands above Hunter on the depth chart. The go-to play for the Titans in practice and during preseason contests when the offense moves into the red zone has been a fade route to Hunter, per John Glennon of The Tennessean.
"They want to use my big frame, so they throw it to me there," Hunter said. "The cornerback has to turn his back at some point to try to defend me. That's when I can use my leaping ability to go over the top of him—before he gets a chance to figure it out."
It works. Against New Orleans in Week 2 of the preseason, Hunter caught four passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns. One score came from Locker, while the other arrived via rookie Zach Mettenberger—a short pass that Hunter took 64 yards to pay dirt—as if to suggest that the budding star wideout can overcome problems under center.
A tweet from Rotoworld's Adam Levitan only reinforces that notion:
Justin Hunter now has 30 NFL catches (preseason and regular season). EIGHT of them have gone for touchdowns.— Adam Levitan (@adamlevitan) August 19, 2014
Hunter is without a doubt a big-play threat every time he steps on the field, whether it is going up and high-pointing passes or taking a short pass and getting past the entire defense with his elite speed.
Really, that slot behind Wright on the depth chart will work wonders for Hunter's fantasy value, too. As defenses key on Wright—as they should—Hunter will be able to take advantage of lesser coverage to great effect using his eerie set of physical traits.
The coachable things, such as confidence and route running, took time, but Hunter appears to have turned a corner just as opportunity presented itself. What is scary in a way, though, is talk from coach Ken Whisenhunt that suggests this is just the beginning, via ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky:
I think you’re seeing just a glimpse of what he can be, but because of what he did last night, let’s not make the mistake and think he’s, by any stretch, close to what he can be. There are a lot of things, from route depth to discipline on his releases, where even though he made some big plays last night, those have got to become more consistent.
It all adds up to quite the steal for owners given Hunter's current ADP. The talent is obvious, but the inherent risk built into that number is the major gamble that his talent can transcend the issues around him.
It matters little how great Locker has looked—he has played in more than 10 games once in three years as a pro now. Backup Charlie Whitehurst has never appeared in more than six games in a season, and Mettenberger is a rookie.
There is a rookie in the backfield, too, instead of former star Chris Johnson.
But that risk is muffled by the natural gifts Hunter brings to the table, which seemed destined to see him rise to relevancy sooner rather than later.
But it also helps that the Titans play in the AFC South, a conference where defense is not exactly a strength outside of Houston—Indianapolis and Jacksonville ranked 20th or worst in total defense last year, while Houston and Jacksonville ranked in the bottom 10 in points allowed per game.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller put it best:
Justin Hunter is going to have a breakout year, folks.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) August 16, 2014
The only issue now is that his ADP is beginning to rise at a dramatic clip.
Snag and stash Hunter as soon as possible. Big-play threats who defensive backs cannot defend in the red zone are quite rare, as is a player who combines that trait with explosiveness to score from anywhere on the field.
On a list of potential breakout stars next season, Hunter sits firmly at the top. Owners who take the seemingly risky dive will be rewarded greatly right away.