by Rivers McCown
One thing I have learned over the years, mostly from osmosis, is the power of big wins in your life. I believe that it's smarter to ask for a raise than it is to stop buying jalapenos at the grocery store. I believe it's smarter to take a leap and go to the Sloan Conference than it is to stay at home and e-mail people. When the cost of failure is only your ego and a small amount of cash, which can be rebuilt fairly easily, it makes sense to go for big risks.
On the football field, though, this philosophy does not translate very well. You have (usually) three shots before you have to punt. While it's always great to get big chunks of yardage all at once, those plays have to be calculated and balanced if you want to achieve a high enough success rate to really make them worth it.
The Titans drafted Justin Hunter with this ideal in mind. He was brought in to provide shot plays that would get Tennessee downfield quickly. In fact, that wound up being his only real use for most of the season.
But with a 43 percent catch rate and a -3.6% DVOA, Hunter provided more bust than boom. Was this the fault of the Tennessee quarterbacks, or was it more a problem with Hunter's play?
I looked at where Hunter lined up before each snap. I gave an educated guess on whether he was facing man or zone coverage, as well as one for the type of route he ran. This can be hard to tell at times, and I still don't think my eye for film matches up with the best in the industry, but I did my best. I don't come into this looking to make sweeping conclusions based on the data we use. In fact, I don't come into this column looking to have a final say on anything.
The target totals listed below don't quite match the total listed on our wideout stats page. This is because we did not consider certain plays, including:
- Hail Mary attempts
- Clear throwaways by an under-pressure Jake Locker or Ryan Fitzpatrick
- Balls tipped at the line of scrimmage
- Targets listing Hunter as the primary receiver in which a defender hit the quarterback during his throwing motion
Here are my observations:
JUSTIN HUNTER'S SEASON BY FIELD ZONES
"Behind the line of scrimmage" includes passes that traveled less than one yard. "Short" indicates passes that traveled between 1-15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. "Deep" indicates passes that traveled 16 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Red numbers show a Success Rate of 50 percent or higher. Black numbers show a Success Rate between 40-49 percent, and blue numbers show a Success Rate of 39 percent or lower.
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1. Circumstances aren't bad...
I only had to get rid of one target when considering Justin Hunter's season.
That's not to say that Hunter was receiving flawless bullets the rest of the time -- that's beyond Ryan Fitzpatrick. But considering the depth of Hunter's average target -- about 18 yards -- balls actually wound up in his area more often than I imagined they would.
Where I'm going with this is that unlike Sanders' 59 percent catch rate, or Graham's 55 percent catch rate, Hunter actually owns his 43 percent. It is influenced by the depth of his targets, but that's no excuse for a catch rate that low. Especially in the kind of role Tennessee crafted for him in most games.
WHERE HUNTER LINED UP ON HIS TARGETS
"Slot" plays include all plays in which a receiver was inside of another receiver, regardless of how tight to the line he was. (For tight ends, if they are lined up at the LOS, they are counted as inline.) Some plays in the charting project include two or three "slot receivers" by this definition.
2. ...now, about those hands...
Allow me to quote from Matt Waldman's 2013 RSP about some issues that Hunter had coming out of college:
Although Hunter can [make] fantastic plays that [require] a high catch radius, he also has a tendency to trap the ball to his body on routes where he really needs to extend his arms and snatch the ball. This is a consistency issue more than a lack of skill. Slants are a good example.
Hunter couldn't have played any closer to Waldman's scouting report if he tried. He was able to snag some balls that were clearly behind him, but I noticed more than a few low throws that were placed only for him but he couldn't come up with. One of his major problems as an underneath receiver -- not that he played there often -- was that he didn't attack footballs with an aggressive attitude consistently. He would let the ball come to him.
This was also an issue on deep balls. Sometimes Hunter boxes out a defensive back completely and you wonder why they don't ask him to do it every play. At other times his passive play puts the ball at risk.
HUNTER VERSUS MAN, HUNTER VERSUS ZONE
Obviously we don't have the actual play calls. These charts are educated guesses and should not be considered gospel.
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Again, with Waldman:
There are individual plays where he'll set up a defender with two moves during his stem to create separation with a break, but I don't see as much detail during and after his breaks that should help him actually gain that separation. He has to learn to consistently drop his hips and make sharper turns on double moves or short breaking routes.
What Hunter showed on his short routes last season led to unsustainable timing for his quarterbacks. I watched him essentially skid to a stop on some of his breaks. I watched him curl around so far that defensive backs had seconds to make up their mind to break on the ball.
That's probably why Hunter spent most of his season -- 60 percent of his targets -- running seam, corner, and post routes. The integrated technique to run short routes with quick breaks was lacking.
4. In theory
Hunter has every physical skill a receiver needs to be a great NFL player. He's a burner. (He doesn't separate as well as you'd hope, but still, the straight-line speed is extremely good.) The Titans will be trying to elevate him to the starting lineup this season, so the opportunity will be there. There's a chance that, in learning his craft, Hunter can become a superstar.
But if it were that easy, Hunter wouldn't have made it to the second round of the 2013 draft. If we go only by what we saw on the field in 2013 -- and there wasn't much improvement in technique at any point of the season -- Hunter is a one-dimensional field stretcher with consistency issues.
An improvement by Hunter would go a long way towards the Titans being a better team in 2014. If he translates his skills into consistent effort and effectiveness, he could become Plaxico Burress. If, instead, he stagnates, he may wind up being Devery Henderson without Sean Payton and Drew Brees running his offensive scheme.
Because in the NFL, it only pays to keep looking for those big wins if you can actually convert a reasonable rate of them. Hunter himself was a swing for the fences: a bet on incredible tools turning into consistent performance. One season in, and we have no evidence that it'll happen. But Hunter wouldn't be the first receiver to come back from his first NFL offseason a new player.