Commentary: Hunter might be prize catch Titans often have lacked

7:33 AM, May 1, 2013   |    comments
Tennessee Volunteers wide receiver Justin Hunter (11) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Georgia State Panthers during the second quarter at Neyland Stadium. Credit: Jim Brown-US PRESSWIRE
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Commentary by David Climer, The Tennessean

Prediction: Assuming his left knee is indeed sound and he avoids major injuries, Justin Hunter will become the best wide receiver the Titans have had since the franchise landed on Tennessee turf.

OK, maybe that's not saying much. It's not like the folks in Canton are reserving spots for Titans wideouts. The team's last wide receiver to make the Pro Bowl was Marc Mariani in 2010. And he did it as a kick returner. Before that, it was Derrick Mason - in 2003.

The Titans have had some big-name wide receivers on the roster over the past 16 seasons, but it's just that those players were on their last legs by the time they hit town. Guys such as Randy Moss and Carl Pickens come to mind.

It is the one position where this franchise just can't seem to get it right. Free agent acquisitions Yancey Thigpen and David Givens arrived with pedigrees and promise but failed to make the expected impact for whatever reason. Nate Washington is the exception. Interestingly, Hunter's arrival could make Washington expendable.

All that changed with the drafting of Hunter. He is tall, fast and athletic. He stretches the field and wins most jump balls. In short, he has Kenny Britt's ability without the baggage. In his three years at Tennessee, Hunter was known as a hard worker on the field and a solid citizen off it.

Some see the drafting of Hunter as a wakeup call for Britt. I don't. For one thing, Britt sleeps through wakeup calls. For another, he's entering the final year of his original contract, and the Titans don't seem inclined to sign him to a new deal. With so much invested in Hunter, the Titans appear to be preparing for life after Britt.

In the near term, one intriguing option is to use a three-wideout formation with Britt and Hunter on opposite sides and 2012 first-round pick Kendall Wright in the slot. That might actually force the defense to back a safety out of the box and loosen things up for Chris Johnson.

While some fixate on the knee injury Hunter incurred in the third game of his sophomore season at UT, it should be noted that he came back to play all 12 games in 2012. And he didn't disappear against tough competition, as witnessed by a combined 20 catches for 284 yards against Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina.

By comparison, fellow Vols wideout Cordarrelle Patterson, who was drafted five slots ahead of Hunter last week, totaled 14 catches for 157 yards against those four opponents.

Granted, there's no question Hunter protected his knee last season. He was not as effective in traffic. He did not go over the middle with the same conviction. He was still a very good player but not the game-changer he had been before the injury.

Now, though, he believes all is well.

"I'm 100 percent and ready to work," he said.

He has work to do in the weight room. At UT, teammates called him "Bones" in reference to his lanky frame. At the NFL Combine, he measured 6-foot-4 and 196 pounds. His agent said he had gained 16 pounds since his last college game.

By Titans standards, the maneuvering to get into position to draft Hunter was extreme. In order to move up six spots in the second round, GM Ruston Webster had to give up the team's original second-round pick (No. 40 overall), a seventh-rounder (No. 216) and a third-round pick in next year's draft.

Normally, it's next to impossible to pry a draft pick from Webster's hands. He believes - correctly - that every pick is valuable. But that's how much the Titans coveted Hunter.

"With him sitting there, we just thought it was a great opportunity for us to get a really talented young receiver with a lot of upside," Webster said.

It was the right move.

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