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Labriola on how Justin Hunter fits with WRs

Posted Mar 17, 2017

Justin Hunter is another "if" and "maybe" added to the Steelers' corps of wide receivers.

Ready or not, here it comes:

* What he was in 2013, according to at least one pre-draft publication, was the top wide receiver prospect in a group that also included Keenan Allen, Tavon Austin, DeAndre Hopkins, and also Markus Wheaton and Cobi Hamilton. In fact, the publication that had rated Justin Hunter so highly referred to him as “a poor man’s A.J. Green.”

* Hunter had dazzled NFL scouts with 4.4 speed, a 39.5-inch vertical, and an 11-4 in the broad jump that was second-best in that category at the Scouting Combine. At 6-foot-4, and with a 33-and-1/4 inch arm length, Hunter was that combination of big, tall, long, and fast NFL teams were finding so attractive in wide receivers.

* As the 2013 draft unfolded, though, Hunter ended up being the fourth wide receiver to come off the board, and he went to the Tennessee Titans in the second round, pick No. 34 overall, but in hindsight there seemed to be reasons why that happened.

* The Rams picked Tavon Austin eighth overall, and what he had going for him was blazing speed and the ability to contribute to a team not only as a receiver but also as a running back and a return specialist. Houston picked DeAndre Hopkins at No. 27 overall to complement veteran Andre Johnson, who was clearly that franchise’s No. 1 receiver at the time. The Vikings went with Cordarelle Patterson at No. 29 overall, because he was big, fast, and explosive, and he also had returned both punts and kickoffs for touchdowns in college.

* Four years later, Justin Hunter is a guy who will be is with his fourth NFL team, after being cut by the Titans, after agreeing to a pay cut of over $300,000 to play for the Dolphins, who then waived him after one game, after hooking on with Buffalo last September after Sammy Watkins went on injured reserve.

* His fourth NFL team, if he makes the Steelers roster, that is.

* That isn’t to discount Hunter or his skill-set, but there’s are reasons why a 6-4 receiver with 4.4 speed is shopping his services during the second wave of free agency and is amenable to signing a one-year-prove-it contract. This was how he once was described in a story that appeared on NFL.com: “Blessed with prototypical size, speed and leaping ability, Hunter left his Titans teammates and coaches salivating over his potential as a 2013 rookie. By the time his 2014 season ended prematurely (because of a lacerated spleen), however, Hunter appeared to be an enigmatic tease with unreliable hands, questionable toughness, and a penchant for mental mistakes.”

* But besides Hunter’s physical skill-set, it’s not difficult to understand why the Steelers were interested in giving this arrangement a try, because after Antonio Brown, the team’s depth chart at receiver right now is filled with more question marks than exclamation points.

* The Steelers still are awaiting word on Martavis Bryant’s reinstatement, and as Team President Art Rooney II said back in January, “I’m not sure at this point you can use the words, ‘count on him.’ We’re waiting for a decision to be made by the league, and then at that point we’ll have an opportunity to kind of evaluate him a little more closely ourselves. And so, I would say there’s a way to go in terms of really understanding where he is, and understanding where he is in relationship to our team. Obviously, he has a tremendous amount of talent and potential. To the extent that we can have him on the team and have him bring his talent to its fullest potential would be great, but there’s a ways to go before any of us understand where that is.”

* The Steelers have said they hoped to hear something definitive from the NFL about Bryant’s reinstatement before the draft, and it’s possible word could come later this month, which would coincide with a 60-day passage of time since he officially applied for reinstatement on Jan. 28.

* The final steps in the process will include a meeting with Commissioner Roger Goodell, or another member of the league’s hierarchy. Bryant also will be evaluated by an NFL medical advisor, who will make a recommendation to Goodell about the possible reinstatement.

* Then there’s Sammie Coates, another of the players who can be said has a similar skill-set to Hunter and Bryant. In the first five games of the 2017 season, Coates had a reception of 40-plus yards in each one. In the next 12 games, he caught four passes total. Coates already has had surgery to repair the broken fingers that served to sabotage 2016 for him, and maybe he fulfills his potential during his third NFL season.

* If and maybe. And so when you look at the wide receivers who were on the Steelers roster for the AFC Championship Game – Coates, Demarcus Ayers, Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, Brown, and Darrius Heyward-Bey – you can understand why the Steelers saw it as worthwhile to take a low-risk chance on another “maybe” named Justin Hunter.

* For his part, Hunter will be coming into the first winning atmosphere since he left college, in playing with Antonio Brown he will have an up-close view of the kind of work necessary to become a successful receiver in the NFL, and he’ll be playing with a legitimate NFL franchise quarterback for the first time in his life, a legitimate franchise quarterback who is one of the best deep-ball passers in the league.

* And so now, it’s wait-and-see on the ifs and maybes.

* If Bryant is reinstated and re-becomes the player he was in scoring 15 touchdowns in 21 regular season games, and then if he can be counted on not to slip back into the behavior that got him suspended for a calendar year, maybe he fulfills his considerable potential. If Coates’ issues during the second half of the 2016 season really were nothing more than trying to play with broken fingers, and if the offseason surgery he already has had fixed the problem, then maybe he develops into the Bryant clone the team envisioned when it made him a third-round draft pick. And if Hunter blossoms in Western Pennsylvania and fulfills the promise he carried with him into the NFL as the No. 34 overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft,

* … Then maybe the Steelers come back in 2017 to contend for a championship with a roster chock-full of dynamic receivers.