Draft Profile: WR – Justin Hunter
Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee. 6’4, 200 lbs. The 49ers have Michael Crabtree and outside of that, they have AJ Jenkins who had one pass dropped and Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams coming off injury. The 49ers will need to address the WR position at some point in the draft. Will that happen at the No. 31 spot, it’s a possibility and if one is taken there, Justin Hunter could be their guy.
The Virginia Beach, Va. Native was a Top 175 prospect by Rivals.com and was invited to the Under Armour All-America game after catching 46 passes for 714 yards and nine touchdowns as a high school senior in 2009.
Hunter signed with Tennessee and earned immediate action, averaging an eye-popping 25.9 yards per catch in 2010 and earning a spot on the All-SEC Freshman team.
He looked well on his way toward establishing himself as a potential all-conference selection in 2011, racking up 315 receiving yards over the first two games before tearing his ACL in Tennessee’s first offensive series against Florida.
One of the top high school recruits Derek Dooley was able to lure to Knoxville, Hunter is a good sized target and displays explosive footwork in and out of his breaks, which is probably his best quality. He isn’t the most natural hands-catcher on throws away from his body and appears to battle streaky confidence due to his drops. Hunter has some durability concerns because of his lean build and ’11 knee injury.
He has first-round talent, but the drops and inconsistency hurt his value, making it tough to trust him. Hunter has a high ceiling if he can refine several areas of his game and is worth the chance in the second round, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he a team takes a chance on his upside in the first round.
Strengths: Hunter is a tall, long athlete with an exception catching radius and reach. He is a fluid, gliding mover with long strides and deceiving speed to get vertical or make plays after the catch. He has strong footwork in/out of his breaks with sharp route quickness to sell patterns and create some separation. He tracks the ball beautifully, adjusting with outstanding body control.
Hunter does a nice job becoming a DB downfield to knock balls away and prevent the INT. He has the size/speed combination to attract defensive holding and pass interference penalties in his routes. Hunter has experience lining up as an X, Y and Z receiver, lining up all over the offense for Tennessee.
He had a productive 2012 season as one of only four SEC receivers to surpass 1,000 receiving yards, finishing third in receiving yards (1,083) and touchdown grabs (9). Despite just 17 career starts, Hunter finishes his Tennessee career ranked top-five in career 100-yard receiving games (8) and touchdown catches (18).
Weaknesses: Hunter has a lean body type from head to toe and needs to add more strength and bulk, but lacks the frame to easily put on weight. He isn’t overly explosive after the catch and is a little straight-linish, lacking flexible ankles and needing a moment when changing his directions. Hunter plays rushed and needs to stay under control in his routes and when locating the ball.
He needs to eliminate some bad habits, playing wild at times, jumping when he doesn’t need to and losing yardage when he reverses his field trying to do too much. Hunter lacks natural hands to corral fastballs and is too inconsistent catching the ball with a lot of body catches and double catches. He needs to secure grabs and doesn’t always look the ball into his hands or locate, battling streaky hand/eye coordination.
Hunter gets obviously frustrated by off-target throws and too often he lets poor body language show, needing to stay focused for all four quarters and keep his emotions in-check. He needs to be more aggressive on 50/50 and jump balls and how better conviction, often lacking the physicality to consistently out-muscle most defensive backs.
Hunter often has some alligator arms over the middle with defenders bearing down on him and needs to sell out for catches. He lacks the build to break tackles, but he needs to play tougher instead of giving up his body or escaping out of bounds. Hunter holds the ball too loose after the catch and needs to protect the ball.
He has some durability concerns because of his lean build, including a torn ACL in his left knee (Sept. 17, 2011). Hunter struggled against top competition in 2012 with just 2 of his 9 touchdowns coming against SEC foes and his 4 100-yard receiving performances were against Georgia State, Akron, Troy and Missouri.
Compares To: Mix of AJ Green, Bengals/Brian Quick, Rams – Like Green, Hunter is a tall, athletic receiver with very good speed and length for the position, but like Quick, he is also unpolished in several areas, including inconsistent hands.
Hunter’s height, striding speed, explosive leaping ability, and easy hands make him an exceptional vertical threat able to take the top off of any defense –- but only when he’s on the field. The Volunteers looked like they were on their way to a prolific 2011 season after putting up more than 40 points in each of their first two games. But their initial first down against Florida in week three proved fatal to the team’s chances of securing a bowl win, as Hunter tore his left ACL during a 12-yard catch on third down – and the team’s offense scored just 92 points in eight conference games without him (and with quarterback Tyler Bray also not himself throughout most of the season). The Vols’ struggles continued in 2012, and even though Hunter started the entire season, his setbacks weren’t as much physical as they were mental.
The Virginia high school All-American and winner of the high jump competition at the 2010 USA Junior Championships combined with fellow sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray for big yardage against Montana (six catches, 146 yards, touchdown) and Cincinnati (10-156, TD) before the injury. This was no surprise given the flashes of playmaking brilliance he showed while making the SEC coaches’ all-freshman squad in 2010. Hunter played in all 13 games, starting twice, in his first year on campus; his 16 catches covered 415 yards (a stout 25.9 yards per reception) and seven touchdowns. After returning from injury in 2012, Hunter started all 12 games opposite fellow junior Cordarrelle Patterson, hauling in 1,083 yards and nine touchdowns on 73 catches. That total could have been much higher, as Hunter’s usually reliable hands seemed to fail him the entire season.
Strengths: Prototypical height for an outside NFL receiver, though he will line up in the slot to test defenses over the middle. Straight-line speed appears more than sufficient for his size, can burst past corners down the sideline, and long strides that make it difficult for cornerbacks to recover once beaten. Varies his speed in routes to put defenses off balance, can accelerate with good foot quickness after a lull to create separation on digs and seam routes. Despite his size, possesses enough of a shimmy off the line to lose cornerbacks. Soft hands make him able to snatch throws in front of his frame or over either shoulder; will be threat on jump balls with his height and leaping ability.
Weaknesses: Has a limited number of snaps under his belt, needs to prove his hands are consistent when tested in a full season as a starter. Missed most of his second season with a torn left ACL. Must continue to get stronger throughout his frame to win battles at the line of scrimmage and break away from NFL tacklers. Blocking on run plays is inconsistent at best, shows little physicality in that realm.
NFL Comparison: Roy Williams
Bottom Line: Tennessee’s tall strider looked to be on his way to a breakout year (17 catches, 314 yards, two touchdowns in just over two games) in 2011 before tearing his left ACL. He missed no time in 2012, but Hunter apparently lost his reliable hands that were a staple of his game prior to the knee injury. It was confusing to watch, since many of the junior’s mistakes were mental rather than physical limitations. Still, Hunter’s ability to separate with smooth routes will likely land him on the second day of April’s draft.