Could Justin Hunter Be A First-Round Option in 2013?

New England should investigate the possibility of adding Hunter this April. (Photo: US Presswire)

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.

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16 Responses to “Could Justin Hunter Be A First-Round Option in 2013?”

  1. I don’t see T. Austin falling to #29. The combine he had was too good not to give him a top 2-3 WR status going into the draft, hich should go before #29. NE might target their secondary in the first round ( projection). Alternatively, many of the draft games I played at have NE taking best avaiable, which could be DE like Dion Jordan, Oregon. Thoughts?

  2. victor kiam's ghost says:

    Combine numbers don’t mean a thing if the WR can’t grasp the “system”. Bethel Johnson, Brandon Tate, Chad Jackson, Taylor Price etc…most had great combine numbers but hardly ever saw the field. Bill needs to get a football smart WR with size and the ability to get separation from a defender. JMHO.

    • J H TARBORO says:

      You must blame the guy who drafted those receivers, We need good football iq and talent, we need to stop grabbing every school team captain, we get lots leadership and pass on the real athletes.

  3. Lloyd Braun says:

    The championship window closing has to do with Brady’s age. He has likely 5 years left, let’s say 2 are like Elway’s last 2- handing off and stepping up when needed. Otherwise, this is a young team. Welker and Wilfork are older, but WR and DT need a young stud each.

    Both WR and DT could have a nice infusion in this draft class. The depth is there to add very good players.

  4. JMayo_51 says:

    Biggest trakeway from the combine to me so far — there are so many receivers to like for the Patriots in this draft. Based on speed and quickness, the Patriots could pick up one anywhere from late 1 to the 4th and get what they look for as far as measurables go.
    Unless Keenan Allen falls at 29, I think there’s no need to go WR in round 1. Just wait for the Da’Rick Rodgers, Quinton Pattons, Markus Wheatons or even Justin Hunters to fall to 59. And you also have options in the 3rd with Josh Boyce, Ryan Swope or Tavarres King.

    • AM says:

      Agreed. In a very deep WR class with no clear-cut top pick, there’s no need to reach. Just be patient, and wait for one to fall (even as low as #59).

    • Russell Easterbrooks says:

      I agree 2nd round , 3d maybe to get a WR, we just need a high IQ guy, with great hands!

  5. dslave says:

    This kid to me has nice long strides and plays to me, kind of lacksadazeacle. He wont be there at 59, but i would get him around 38 to 48.

  6. J H TARBORO says:

    We’re making mistake if we don’t take Tavon Austin!!! Based on what i seen at combine, this kid is a real football player. I liked Robert Woods,Ryan Swoop, and few others. The Patriots’ are going to need more than 1 reciever, that’s why i think we trade our first plck.

    • J H TARBORO says:

      No! Justin Hunter didn’t earn a first round spot. Based on talent every Patriots’ reciever could be replaced. my opinion only!

      • Russell Easterbrooks says:

        I am SURE we trade a pick and the 1st is the best bet. I also think we only draft ONE WR, BB needs other positions filled. I don’t think we get any WR’s in free agency, IF we sign Welker, and Edleman, and the guy we draft will be an outside type WR not a slot guy like Ausin.
        I also think BB would like to get his WR in the 3d with#91. This narrows the field, for sure, but thats what I think, with TWO D players OR an Olineman drafted before the WR.

    • acm says:

      If Welker goes, I can see BB get tempted with T. Austin if he is available at 29. Other than that, there should be great value deeper in the draft, starting from that 2nd round pick.

      • J H TARBORO says:

        ACM, We will never know if Welker signs for 5yrs. As you know i like Austin, but Robert Woods,Ryan Swoop, Kenny Stills, Connor Vernon, and Wheaton are all great.We have to give the young guys a chance. Mentally, Brady has to cut ties with Welker, it will force him to go thru his progressions and make the playcalling more dynamic, and i think Brady relies too much on Welker.

        • J H TARBORO says:

          Watch out for Andre Holmes and Jeremy Ebert. Ebert ran a 4.44 40yds.

        • J H TARBORO says:

          Just watched tape again on Marquise Goodwin vs Tavon Austin. One is an Olympic long jumper/sprinter that plays WR, the other is real football player with natural hands, sprinter speed and when Tavon makes a cut he doesn’t lose any speed at all, also ran for over 300yds. out of the backfield against Oklahoma. Some people who were evaluating him and making comments, and never him watched on tape. I had friends over during the combine who had their mock drafts and seen Tavon run 4.25 40yds saturday morning and asked if they could see him on tape and were blown away! The only comparison is speed, at the combine Tavon Austin did everything well. Marquise’s hands are suspect. Do your research!

        • Russell Easterbrooks says:

          Research is the key, watch tape !!! I have watched Austin in person, and his speed is A one. His route running OK.
          The trick is to compare tape of players, keeping in mind how they could look as a Patriot, with the same play. Like the WR srceen, a play the Patriots and most College’s run. How the player turns toward the ball, postion of hands,and feet, and then the turn up field. How was the QB’s throw? How was a bad pass handled, did the WR move his feet back to the ball, Etc, etc.
          The guy I like best is Wheaton, …. Hunter, Patton, and Dobson also look good FOR differant reasons, and are graded.

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