NFL teams working feverishly to solve the Margus Hunt mystery
It was a misunderstanding that turned into something of a prophecy.
Did Margus Hunt, a defensive lineman throughout his career at SMU, really just reveal that some teams want to move him to linebacker? Is that what he means when he says they’re looking at him “to play outside?”
“No, no,” Hunt responds, with a slight chuckle, explaining that by “outside,” he is referring to a defensive end spot. The notion of being a rush-linebacker in a 3-4 is so far off Hunt’s radar that the mere suggestion is borderline ludicrous.
One week after brushing off that idea, though, Hunt had no choice but to embrace the possibility. At SMU’s Pro Day on Wednesday, Jets coach Rex Ryan, owner of a 3-4 defense in New York, ran Hunt through drills from the outside linebacker spot — a twist that reportedly caught Hunt quite off guard, despite his earlier conversation.
When all is said and done, Hunt almost certainly will wind up playing along an NFL defensive line, be it a 3-4 or a 4-3. But Ryan’s curiosity about a potential switch to linebacker (not to mention that of former scout Bryan Broaddus, who wondered aloud about converting Hunt to tight end) stands as evidence that the 6-foot-8, 277-pound Hunt is as beguiling a prospect as this draft has to offer.
Is he a 4-3 end? A movable part in a 3-4? Against what Hunt believes, an outside linebacker or even a tight end?
The only certainty as the draft approaches is that Hunt possesses a tempting level of potential, meaning that some team somewhere will find a place for him.
“I’m that kind of guy that … throw me in feet first and tell me, ‘You have to do this, have to do that,’” Hunt says. “By all means, that’s how you learn, you have to take snaps, you can’t sit around and wait for that opportunity. I’m definitely open to whatever they throw at me.”
He’s made it this far, after all.
The road has been nothing short of Disneyesque. A former world champion in both the shot put and discus, Hunt migrated from his native Estonia to the United States in 2007 to train with SMU track coach Dave Wollman. Then, in 2009, he tried out for the Mustangs’ football team, made it, and learned the game’s rules by playing the “Madden” video game.
Thus, he’s a soon-to-be 26-year-old prospect who is just now getting the hang of his sport.
“The first scrimmage we had … the only thing I didn’t know was if he was going to be tough enough,” SMU head coach June Jones said after his team’s Hawaii Bowl win in December. “The first play we ran a trap and hit him real hard, and he wanted to fight. I said, ‘OK, we may have a player here.’
“His best football is ahead of him.”
There is a lot of evidence to back up that claim.
Hunt’s 82-inch wingspan would be a respectable mark for an NBA player, plus he ran a 4.6 40 and tossed up a whopping 38 bench press reps during the NFL’s scouting combine. And teams need look no further than his game tapes, which include 28.0 career sacks and a penchant for swatting field goals thanks to that wingspan.
But still, he has a mere four years of football experience under his belt — and “Madden” can get you only so far. Without learning a new scheme and adjusting to the NFL’s style of play, Hunt’s physical gifts will not mean much.
“That definitely comes up as a concern,” Hunt says of how teams react to his relatively brief football resume. “I don’t really see that. I didn’t see any complications in that.
“My main goal was to show them that I know defense and know what we did for the past four years. I didn’t have any trouble explaining all aspects of our plan.”
Being 6-8 can be problematic for a defensive player, too, and that’s another aspect of Hunt’s game that has some scouts concerned. During Senior Bowl week, when moved out to a 4-3 end spot, Hunt struggled to maintain leverage against some of college football’s elite tackles.
“If you have that kind of height, there’s a disadvantage of standing up tall way too early, looking in the backfield — you’re driven off the line of scrimmage and can’t really control the opponent,” Hunt says. “It’s getting better, but I still have to improve a little bit.”
For NFL teams, the draft is as much a challenge in deciphering a player’s upside as it is picking apart his current skills. Perhaps no 2013 prospect is as much a walking Rubik’s Cube as Hunt.
“There are a bunch of guys that are going to have to play (various positions) — one of the things about today’s defenders is their versatility,” NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock said at the combine. “Margus Hunt … what is he? Is he a 4-3 end or a 3-4 five-technique (3-4 defensive end)?”
With less than a month to go until the NFL descends on New York City for the 2013 draft, no one is entirely sure of the answer. The conversation becomes even more complicated when adding in the possibility of Hunt at an outside linebacker or the off-the-wall tight end idea.
Hunt excelled at that five-technique spot with SMU, although he says that he felt comfortable at any spot on the line. He’s also quick to add that the Mustangs’ scheme called for the DEs to line up wide on passing downs, so “it wasn’t a brand-new feeling” when he was asked to take his position in a 4-3 at the Senior Bowl.
As with everything else, though, Hunt conveys a sense that he must continue maturing as a football player.
“There’s a lot of work to be done to be that every-down starter,” Hunt says.
Nary a scout or coach would dispute that, even if the exact projection for Hunt’s future as an NFL player remains a mystery.