Rookies to Watch: Justin Hunter
As we power through the summer toward training camps, Chris Burke will highlight players that interest him this season for various reasons. This week, he’s looking at three rookies who might star in 2013.
The Minnesota Vikings traded four picks — a second-, third-, fourth- and seventh-rounder — to move up and nab University of Tennessee wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson in Round 1 of this year’s draft.
Five selections later, the Titans moved three draft choices — a second-, seventh- and 2014 third-rounder — to climb the ladder for Patterson’s former college teammate, Justin Hunter.
High price tags both, and Patterson may have the highest ceiling of any rookie offensive player. So, why does it feel like the Titans pulled off a steal here?
Maybe it’s because it was Hunter (and not Patterson) who led Tennessee in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns last season. Or that while Patterson carried a “raw” description into the draft, as a receiver who needed to hone his route-running and technique, Hunter was much further along in that development.
Regardless of the reasoning, the Titans were able to wait until Round 2, save a fourth-round pick compared to Minnesota’s trade package and land a player that could compete for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
“Justin is real good from what I’ve seen so far,” Kendall Wright, the Titans’ first-round pick in 2012, told Craig Peters of TitansOnline.com.
The Titans reportedly plan to start Hunter out at their “Z” receiver position, which lines up on the opposite side of the field from Kenny Britt at the “X.” Nate Washington played that “Z” spot last year, to rather disappointing results; Washington finished the year with just 46 catches, prompting the Titans’ Hunter move in the draft and leading to rumors of Washington (and his $4.2 million contract for 2013) being sent packing.
Any signs of life from Hunter, then, bode well for Wright and the team’s passing game as a whole. Wright hauled in a team-high 64 catches last season — a number that may have been substantially larger had Washington not faltered (just eight catches over Tennessee’s final four games) or Britt been 100 percent, allowing Wright to operate with less attention from defenses.
That’s not to say that there is totally clear sailing ahead for the Titans’ receiving corps. Much of their success there depends on Jake Locker (hold that thought), plus Hunter irked his new coaches by sitting out OTAs with a hamstring injury.
“Justin needs to get his (butt) going,” Titans wide receivers coach Shawn Jefferson said last week, according to The Tennessean. “Sometimes we have to fight through things. That’s how I was taught with Bill Parcells. If it ain’t broke, then I’m not hurt. This is a very crucial time. This is where we see the growth in the kid, where he gets used to going through some adversity.”
Jefferson, you might recall, was involved in a tiff with Titus Young last year as a coach for the Lions. In other words, Hunter may want to stay on his good side.
But training camp and the preseason ought to provide the rookie receiver ample opportunity to prove himself, even if he opens it behind Washington in the pecking order. Tennessee’s ideal offensive setup likely would put Hunter and Britt together on the outside, with Wright in the slot, Delanie Walker at tight end and Chris Johnson excelling out of the backfield.
On paper, that’s an extremely dangerous group — especially so if Hunter fills out his 6-foot-4 frame and becomes more of an all-around weapon.
His 2013 numbers, like those of every other Titans skill-position player, will rely heavily on Locker. Tennessee has gone out of its way to surround Locker with talent, from adding offensive linemen (Andy Levitre in free agency and Chance Warmack in Round 1) to signing Walker, to selecting Wright and Hunter in back-to-back drafts.
Wright came closest to emerging as a go-to guy for Locker during his 11 starts last season. Hunter could step in and wrestle that designation away, especially if Britt and Wright can draw extra defensive attention.
Should Hunter find himself in a number of one-on-one situations, he could make opposing defenses pay dearly. Whereas the Vikings may need to be very guided and precise in how they get the ball to Patterson, Hunter is advanced enough in his routes to work his way open. He also has speed to win matchups deep, and his 6-4 size will make him a very tough cover in tight quarters.
Patterson may be flashier, even in the NFL, thanks to his big-play ability as well as his experience out of the backfield and returning kicks. For the Titans’ needs, though, Hunter appears to be a near-perfect fit.
Don’t be the slightest bit surprised if he winds up being the more productive NFL player.