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Making the Leap, No. 21: Justin Hunter

  • By Gregg Rosenthal and Chris Wesseling
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Around The League will profile the top 25 players we see Making the Leap in 2014. No. 21 on the list: Tennessee Titans wide receiver Justin Hunter.

Why Hunter is on the list


Chris Wesseling: He fits the profile. After nailing Josh Gordon, Alshon Jeffery and Michael Floyd as breakout stars coming off tantalizing but inconsistent rookie campaigns, we can't ignore Hunter's obvious physical gifts.

Coming out of Tennessee, Hunter blew up the 2013 Scouting Combine, leading all receivers in the vertical (39.5 inches) and broad jump (11-foot-4) while blazing a 4.44-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-4 and nearly 200 pounds.

Entering the draft, NFL Films guru Greg Cosell touted Hunter as the "the most intriguing" and "the most physically talented" wideout.

While vexing the Titans coaching staff with mental mistakes and questionable toughness, Hunter showed glimpses of unique talent in training camp that inspired teammates to throw around phrases such as "out of control how good that guy could be" and will "single-handedly destroy a defense."

Once the games began, though, Hunter appeared to be a one-dimensional wide receiver capable of making plays only when he out-jumped cornerbacks and high-pointed the ball in tight spaces.

"Nobody out there can touch him if he does that," Kendall Wright said at the time. The video clip above bears witness to Wright's sentiment.

After watching all 42 of Hunter's rookie-year targets on Game Rewind, though, I am going to need Gregg Rosenthal to convince me that shaky hands won't be a career-long bugaboo for an otherwise promising prospect.

Rosenthal: His hands are a concern because that's a tough problem to shake. Unreliable mitts, however, don't necessarily stop a talented wide receiver from breaking out. Terrell Owens never got over his problem with drops. Brandon Marshall struggled with drops, especially early in his career. Dwayne Bowe still does.

If Hunter can use his physical gifts to the fullest, I can live with some drops. Hunter's talent for climbing over defenders is rare. While there were drops, he also did a nice job making a few catches thrown behind him. He showed the potential for after-the-catch ability during his 54-yard gain against Oakland.

This is a series about projecting a player forward, not focusing only on some inevitable rookie mistakes. In our profile of Michael Floyd last year, we noted his drops and picking up the game mentally. Alshon Jeffery's profile also noted he struggled with footwork and going up for contested catches.

We chose them for "Making the Leap" because their ability to make big plays popped off the screen. Hunter passes the eye test of a player we'll wind up seeing in highlight reels for years.

Obstacles


Wesseling: Game analysts are fond of saying an NFL wide receiver should catch any ball within his reach. Hunter got at least one hand on the majority of throws in his direction, but managed a scant 43.9 catch percentage -- 107th out of 111 receivers rated by Pro Football Focus.

This was not an aberration. Hunter dropped a disturbing 12.1 percent of his targets in his final season with the Vols. Questionable hands and mental toughness were the two biggest knocks on him entering the league. They remain red flags while being tasked with learning a new offense for the second consecutive season.

I can't help but wonder if Hunter's closest NFL comparables are Jerome Simpson, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Mohamed Massaquoi -- talented receivers with prodigious potential, a highlight-reel play or two every game and a trail of exasperated coaching staffs.

Rosenthal: That trio doesn't compare to Hunter in raw talent. (And Simpson and DHB could barely get on the field as rookies.) Learning a second offensive system in as many years will be a challenge for Hunter, as will learning more of the route tree. For now, he's not going to be asked to go over the middle that much. He's not a complete receiver yet by any means, and his primary value will be stretching the field and working in the red zone.

Hunter, who looked notably slight last year, has taken the Titans' advice and added 15 pounds this offseason. That should help him beat man coverage more easily.

2014 Expectations


Wesseling: Position coach Shawn Jefferson recently talked up Hunter as the receiver who could carry the Titans into the playoffs if his untapped potential translates to on-field results. At the same time, Jefferson lauded overlooked veteran Nate Washington as a "stud," a "pro's pro" and the leader of the wide receiver corps.

Washington is rivaling Rex Ryan as the NFL's latest Rasputin figure. I'm skeptical that Hunter will prove reliable enough this season to succeed where Kenny Britt failed in his half-decade of attempting to knock off Washington in the Nashville pecking order.

Rosenthal: In today's NFL, even mediocre passing attacks stumble into 3,500 yards. (Kendall Wright, our "Making the Leap" choice from the Titans last season, figures to gobble up 1,000 yards out of the slot.)

There is great opportunity for Hunter to step in on the outside and hoover targets, even while he's learning the game. Yes, there is room for Hunter and Nate Washington with Kenny Britt out of the picture. Hunter had four scores and 354 yards in only 340 snaps last year. His playing time will easily double and could nearly triple, even if your boy Washington remains part of the rotation. 

We had a good track record picking receivers on the verge last year in our series, and Hunter should keep that streak going. Wesseling can even take some of the credit.

In the latest edition of the "Around The League Podcast," the heroes debate the Super Bowl windows of Brady and Manning.

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