Last year at this time, Keenan Allen, Justin Hunter, and Robert Woods were the talk of the 2013 draft for wide receivers. Whether due to people simply getting bored of them and getting involved with the new flavors of the month or something more legitimate, all three have faded to the background and two of the three should still figure in the first round. Justin Hunter lost last season with an ACL tear and people were excited to see what he could do this year. Hunter came back and had 73 catches for 1,083 yards and 9 touchdowns as the go-to receiver for the Volunteers. He did everything people asked of him to do considering he was coming off of an ACL tear and the question has to be asked: Was Hunter playing at 100%? If he was not, he could be primed to get even better next year and beyond. Hunter will be a tremendous commodity in the NFL Draft due to the fact he can fit in any offense as well as his triangle numbers, and still more potential to be realized at the next level. As a result, Hunter could go as high as the late teens in the draft or end up in the early second round, but certainly has the chance to leap frog a few players that people have rated ahead of him right now.
Hunter is listed at 6í4Ē 200lbs. He has a very lean build like A.J. Green did coming out of Georgia. Green was remarkably strong and Hunter will have his opportunity to prove it as well, but Hunter has demonstrated a decent amount of power and strength throughout his career at Knoxville. Hunter is deceptively fast running with a long, very smooth stride. He will surprise defenders with how much speed he can build up in a hurry despite the fact he does not look like he is working all that hard to do it. Hunter has decent quickness and shows good leg strength in his cuts and explosion enabling him to gain separation. He has a prototypical build for teams in search of a true #1 receiver and he has the potential to be that in the NFL with plenty of room to add strength to his frame. There will be a great deal of focus on his 40 time at the combine. It would be a shock if he runs anything less than a 4.5 which is plenty for his size, but getting into the 4.4 range would make teams take additional notice.
In terms of his technique, Hunter is smooth in and out of his breaks. When he is making a 45 degree cut, he makes a subtle move that allows him to maintain speed and take advantage of his size. When he needs to make a 90 degree cut or greater, he shows impressive leg explosion. This is most notable when he sells the in route and cuts back outside gaining a good amount of separation. Hunter is a solid route runner who does a good job distributing his weight in order for him to stay balanced and come out of his cuts effectively. Hunterís stance is not terribly effective and it has mixed results. Most of the time he ends up bouncing significantly to get out of his stance which makes him come off of the line slower than he should. He ends up coming out smoother when he sells a head fake at the line of scrimmage. He needs to find comfort in a stance that starts him out lower to fire straight out. Hunter is a long strider but he does a good job of planning out his cuts so he can work any area of the field and with his leg strength, he is able to get a lot of push and get distance from his plant foot. The fact that he is a long strider forces him to be better in his route running because he has less room for error. Any mistake on his part results in false steps which are a bigger problem for him than many other wide receivers. Hunter has done a good job in making his routes economical and he should only continue to improve in the NFL. Hunter has demonstrated the ability to run effective routes at any of the three major categories of depth. In addition to the fact he is a long strider, he has a very smooth stride. The benefit here is that when Hunter tracks the football down the field, his stride will not cause the ball to bounce from his perspective. Guys who run with a violent stride can have trouble tracking the ball down the field because they are moving up and down so much in their running style the ball bounces in how they see the ball because they are bouncing so much, making it more difficult to track and catch the football. Hunterís smooth stride should keep the football making it appear steady in the air making it easier for him to track it and catch it. And he has made a number of spectacular catches in his career and this is part of the reason he is able to do it.
Hunter has shown tremendously natural, soft hands throughout his career in Knoxville. The problem is he does not use them consistently enough. He has plays where the ball will hit his hands in midair and stop so easily and naturally. Then he will show plays where he is perfectly happy to let the ball get into his body. He has these great hands; he should use them all the time. Hunter has shown the ability to track the deep ball and go get it, make some spectacular high flying catches, and will catch the ball on a drag or cross and transition naturally from pass catcher to run after the catch seamlessly. Because he has such amazing hands, the body catches look lazy. He is more likely to go with his body in the middle of the field or on quick slants when quarterback Tyler Bray shows off his arm and lays it in there. The problem is that there are too many examples where this allows defenders to get their hands in between Hunter and the ball causing incompletions that should have been good hands catches. These are wasted opportunities and could mean the difference between first down and punting or touchdown and field goal. He will occasionally drop passes that hit him in the hands but these look cases where he needs to concentrate on the ball the whole way rather than a fundamental problem. Hunter needs to put in the work to trust his hands all the time anyway and this is part of that process.
In terms of run after catch, Hunterís deceptive speed and quickness can cause big time problems for opponents. He is so smooth in how he weaves in and out with the ball in his hands and shows decent enough vision. Hunter has shown the ability to break the big play when it is not necessarily obvious and has enough speed to do some major damage. For better or worse, when Hunter is presented with the opportunity to put his shoulder down and get more yards or try to make a move or simply going out of bounds, Hunter opts for going out of bounds. On the other hand, when there is a chance to get into the end zone and nowhere to go, Hunter will show off his power, lower his shoulder, and push his way into for the score. Hunter is more difficult to bring down than many might think by looking at his lean body.
Hunterís effort as a blocker is pretty good. He does a good job of breaking down early, establishing the block and then driving. If he put more effort into it, he could be a weapon in that role, but he has a good understanding of the technical skills. And against most college defensive backs, he is great. He will need to step it up in the NFL to maintain that same level of success and really present himself as a complete receiver.
When it comes to projecting a fit for Justin Hunter, he can basically play in any scheme, but he might be best suited for a team that plays in ugly weather. While Hunter may not be thrilled at the idea, he is so big and impressive with his body control, route running and hands, he should be able to create a ton of separation when footing is questionable. He could certainly play in a dome environment as well. In terms of the style of offense, Hunter can play in a vertical offense or a horizontal one or a combination of the two. He stands out as a guy who can play in any system with any quarterback and thrive as a go-to receiver. While he may not start out as the #1 depending on the team who drafts him, he does profile as a guy who should become the #1 at some point in his career and has the potential to be a superstar in the league. He has all the tools to be a tremendous player in the NFL.
The comparison for Justin Hunter might surprise some, but it is former Central Florida Golden Knight and current Chicago Bear, Brandon Marshall. Marshall was substantially bigger with his body at 6í5Ē and nearly 230lbs when he was drafted while Hunter is smaller and faster, but their styles are very similar. These guys are both volume receivers that can make plays at all areas of the field. Both guys can break the big play for a touchdown, but they are also guys who can compile a number of catches throughout a game and then surprise in the box score, catching something like 8 passes for 100 yards in a game. Both also have a nose for the end zone.
Hunter has some questions to answer with his speed at the combine, but as long as he can get more consistent with using his hands and get a little more aggressive with how he catches the ball, he has the talent to be the best wide receiver in this class. It is interesting that Hunter was such a hot name after he tore his ACL last year and while he was recovering. When he came back and played like he was supposed to, he fell into the background for a lot of people. It is possible he performed as well as he did this year without actually being 100% and as long as he checks out medically, a team could end up getting a good player who should be even better in the NFL. Hunterís height, weight, and speed as well as his wide range of fits as well as his potential could vault him up draft boards and he warrants a pick in the late teens of the first round but could go anywhere from there to the early second round.
N.C. State 2012
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