I have been following the Tennessee Titans for almost 15 years now, and it seems like they have never truly had an elite wide receiver. Don’t get me wrong, Derrick Mason was an excellent player who had a very productive career. Mason was extremely consistent in his time with the Titans. That said, Tennessee has never quite had a true No. 1 wide out.
Justin Hunter can become the star wide receiver the Titans have been searching for all this time. Let’s take a look back at his rookie season. After moving from No. 40 to No. 34 (via San Francisco 49ers), the Titans selected WR Justin Hunter out of the University of Tennessee. Hunter had a 1st/2nd round grade assigned to him by numerous draft analysts. Coming out of college, some of his strengths included:
- Prototypical height and length, standing at 6-foot-4
- Ran a 4.44 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, a good time when taking his height into account
- Excellent in the red-zone, a threat on jump balls
And his weaknesses:
- Too lean, weighing only 196 lbs. at the time
- Injury history, tore ACL during 2011 season
- Questionable hands, dropped several passes during his junior season
The Titans relinquished a 2014 third-round pick in order to secure Hunter’s services. This just goes to show how highly Tennessee’s front office thought of him. But could Hunter return the favor by playing well in his rookie year? He definitely showed flashes at times, starting with the first catch of his young career, a go-ahead game-winning touchdown in the final seconds against the San Diego Chargers. Later on in the season, Hunter posted a pair of 100-yard games in road games, one at Denver and the other at Oakland. He finished the season with 18 receptions for 354 yards and four touchdowns. This included a 19.7 average yards per reception, an encouragingly high number even with the small sample size.
In a previous post, I recently compared Hunter to Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. The similarities might shock you. Jeffrey’s rookie year stat line looks like this: 24 receptions, 367 yards, 15.3 average yards per reception, and four touchdowns. That’s eerily close to Hunter’s 1st year totals. Their style of play is closely related as well. Consider this:
- Both have great height, Jeffrey’s 6-foot-3 and Hunter’s an inch taller
- They each have great ball skills, specifically jump-ball skills
- They catch the ball away from their bodies with full extension at times, even under tight coverage
- Both are smooth, fluid, and have long strides
- Each of them play with injury prone quarterbacks (Possibly irrelevant, but still worth noting)
Jeffrey went out and had an outstanding sophomore season, posting 89 catches for 1,421 yards and 7 touchdowns, including an extra 105 rushing yards to boot. He was able to post these numbers due to a variety of factors; Chicago had an established running game, an offensive guru at the helm, and he had luxury of playing alongside elite WR Brandon Marshall, who drew coverage away from Jeffrey.
The 2014/15 Tennessee Titans could have some similar strong points. The running game should be less feast or famine and more consistent than the previous season with addition of RB Bishop Sankey. The offensive play-calling and overall structure will be improved under new head coach Ken Whisenhunt. And while Titans WR Kendall Wright is not on Marshall’s level as a receiving threat, he will attract a lot of attention from defenses.
Do I think Justin Hunter can duplicate Jeffery’s success in his 2nd season? Time will tell, but those numbers, specifically the yardage and receptions, are somewhat of a best-case scenario in terms of Hunter’s immediate potential. For a more reasonable, but still optimistic, expectation for Hunter’s sophomore campaign, look no further than Chargers WR Keenan Allen. Allen caught 71 balls for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns in his first year as a pro. But why bring up Allen? Because his offensive coordinator last season will now be calling plays for the Titans this year, and hopefully Whisenhunt will put Hunter in a position to succeed, as he did with Allen.
Justin Hunter has a bright future ahead of him. He is a gifted athlete with all the tools necessary to become a stud wide receiver in this league. I’m a believer in Hunter, are you? Let us know in the comments section below.