NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
Yesterday, Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter’s excellent workout numbers were lost amid captivating 40-yard dash runs of 4.34 seconds and 4.27 seconds by West Virginia’s Tavon Austin and Texas’ Marquise Goodwin, respectively. Considered a possible first-round pick entering the 2012 season, Hunter did everything expected of him at Tennessee but has been consistently slipping down draft boards, constantly overshadowed by teammate Cordarrelle Patterson. Was Hunter’s workout good enough to earn him a first-round spot, and is he a possibility for New England this April? Read on to find out.
Simply put, Hunter’s workouts were fantastic; in fact, they may have been even more impressive than Patterson’s, who was considered the most athletic receiver in the class heading into this weekend’s Combine. Hunter nearly matched Patterson’s 40-yard dash time, recording a 4.44 second time compared to Patterson’s 4.42, and topped Patterson in both the vertical jump (39.5” compared to 37”) and broad jump (136” compared to 128”), two measures of a prospect’s explosiveness.
The Volunteers utilized Hunter in a variety of ways this past season; he’s surprisingly effective with the ball in his hands and catches some screen passes, but typically you can find him running intermediate or deep crossing routes down the field, where he uses his size (6’4”, 196 pounds) and length (33 ¼” arms) effectively in order to shield defenders from the ball. Hunter’s catching radius benefits from his long arms and big hands, allowing him to pluck the ball out of the air. These same qualities make him an appealing candidate in red zone situations.
At this point, Hunter’s route-running may not be among the best in the class, but he was frequently able to gain separation at the college level, whether split out wide or on routes run from the slot. In total, Hunter caught 73 passes for 1,083 yards and nine touchdowns in 2012 despite another highly erratic season from Volunteers quarterback Tyler Bray, who missed open receivers with some frequency last year; Hunter’s production greatly surpassed Patterson’s 46-778-5 line.
Of course, there are some weaknesses in Hunter’s game which could keep him out of the first round. While Hunter’s numbers at the Combine this weekend were eye-popping, they came as somewhat of a surprise because he doesn’t appear quite as fast or explosive on tape as his numbers would seem to indicate. One of the main questions about Hunter heading into the Combine was whether he had enough speed and short-area quickness to separate from NFL defenders consistently. Even when he was able to separate last year, he struggled with dropped passes.
Another concern is Hunter’s thin frame; at 6’4” and 196 pounds, his build recalls Randy Moss. Like Moss, Hunter’s level of physicality is not one of his greatest assets as a player, and he was not always capable of making difficult catches in traffic. Any team which drafts Hunter will likely have to focus on getting him the ball downfield rather than requiring him to run short crossing routes which will potentially subject him to big hits from linebackers and safeties. There is also the issue of Hunter’s health in college, having torn his left ACL in September 2011.
In a class which is deep at wide receiver through the first three or four rounds, it’s possible that teams could shy away from drafting receivers with high picks, complacent to wait and choose from the handful of second and third-round options available, a strategy which could result in the availability of players such as Hunter, Robert Woods (Southern California), and possibly even Keenan Allen (California) in the draft’s second round. Other possibilities include the likes of Markus Wheaton (Oregon St.), Terrance Williams (Baylor), Quinton Patton (Louisiana Tech), Da’Rick Rogers (Tennessee), Stedman Bailey (West Virginia), and Kenny Stills (Okahloma.)
However, it’s not likely that the Patriots would have an opportunity to draft a player of Hunter’s caliber with their own second-round pick, number 59 overall. He is intriguing from New England’s perspective because he offers rare size at the position which Tom Brady hasn’t had the opportunity to work with since Randy Moss was a Patriot. Despite his elite production, Brady will turn 36 in August and has just two years left on his contract. It’s possible that we are witnessing the last few seasons of his storied NFL career.
With New England’s championship window closing, drafting a wide receiver or two makes sense as both a short-term strategy and as a long-term one. By providing Brady with more weapons on the outside, the Patriots will help soften the effect of any physical deterioration of Brady’s skills as he ages, especially by adding a big target such as Hunter, whose catching radius is more forgiving than a smaller receiver’s. New England lacks an additional outside receiver to complement Brandon Lloyd, so Hunter could receive significant playing time as a rookie.
As a long-term option, the move makes sense because New England’s future at wide receiver is currently unclear. Wes Welker may depart in free agency this offseason, and even if he returns, both Welker and Lloyd are already in their 30s. The only depth players on the roster at this point are special teams ace Matthew Slater and practice squad options Jeremy Ebert and Andre Holmes, leaving the wide receiver position as arguably the weakest on the team from a long-term perspective. The aforementioned factors could push the Patriots towards a wide receiver such as Hunter early in 2013.