It’s easy to see why people are looking for a second-year breakout season from Tennessee Titans wide receiver Justin Hunter.
First, he’s got the measureables.
Second, 4 of his 18 catches were touchdowns last year with “Captain Checkdown” Ryan Fitzpatrick under center for the majority of the season. He also averaged 19.7 yards per catch, showing his massive potential for big plays.
Third, the return of a healthy Jake Locker, who has a career 7.1 yards per attempt (opposed to Fitzpatrick’s 6.5), looks to give Hunter more opportunity to make plays vertically.
Throw in the fact that Ken Whisenhunt arrives as the Titans new head coach on the heels of his Philip Rivers reclamation project, and the arrow appears to be pointing upward for both Hunter and Locker in 2014.
At his current 12.04 average draft position in 12-team PPR leagues, I have no problem investing in Hunter, hoping for a blowup season. But I want to point out a factor that I feel has been largely ignored regarding the Justin Hunter narrative this off-season.
The existence of Nate Washington.
Despite turning 31 in a few weeks, it seems like Washington has been in the league for decades. Now with the emergence of Hunter, Washington is suffering from “Frank Gore Syndrome”; a player who everyone wants to go away to make room for a more youthful option, but may not be ready to totally cede his position.
An Unsustainable Pace?
According to numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics, Justin Hunter’s 2013 season was extremely impressive.
Hunter’s 0.94 Reception NEP per target, a true measure of efficiency based on target volume, ranked 4th among 27 wide receivers with 30-50 targets. Obviously this is a group of receivers who had a relatively small sample size, and his 0.94 mark is largely due to the fact that three of his four touchdowns were scored from 30 or more yards out. In simple terms, our metrics value long touchdowns much more highly than intermediate gains, as any system would.
Making the assumption that Hunter will sustain his high level of efficiency if he is given significantly more volume may be an example of faulty logic. In 2013, only five wide receivers were targeted 100-plus times and had a per target Reception NEP of 0.90 or higher: Anquan Boldin, Demaryius Thomas, Jordy Nelson, Keenan Allen, and Calvin Johnson.
Aside from Allen, who was a rookie last season, all of the other qualifying players are well-established veterans who have proven success at the NFL level.
Can Hunter someday get to the lofty level achieved by these players? It’s certainly possible. Will it happen this season? Not necessarily.
When discussing possible reasons why Hunter may not make a substantial leap in his second season, Kendall Wright needs to be mentioned as well.
While Wright gets most of the attention in conversations about the Titans receiving corps, it’s actually Washington who has been the more efficient option during the last two seasons since Wright entered the league.
|Player (Year)||Receptions||Reception NEP||Reception NEP per Target|
|Nate Washington (2012)||45||61.44||0.69|
|Kendall Wright (2012)||63||49.86||0.48|
|Nate Washington (2013)||58||82.57||0.79|
|Kendall Wright (2013)||94||80.09||0.58|
In both seasons, despite having substantially less targets and receptions, Washington bested Wright in terms of Reception NEP per target and Reception NEP. And remember, Reception NEP is a cumulative statistic. Despite popular narrative, the Titans were better off as a team when the ball went to Washington, not Wright.
Tread Left on the Tires
Since arriving in Tennessee in 2009, Washington has never had fewer than 42 receptions, less than 569 yards, and he's only has one season with less than four touchdown catches. He’s also only missed five games in those five full seasons.
While most receivers over the age of 30 tend to move into a more possession-type role as they age, Washington has a 70-plus yard touchdown reception to his credit in both of the last two seasons, showing he still has some juice left.
Again referencing our numberFire metrics over Washington’s past five seasons, you can see he has actually improved overall as his career has progressed.
|Year||Receptions||Rec. NEP||Rec. NEP per Target|
Too Much To Overcome?
But Washington has also only eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving once in his career, and he’s only had 50-plus catches twice. No one is mistaking him for a top-level talent, and I'm not here to advocate drafting him as one. But he could very well be talented enough to stifle the momentum Hunter has been building since last season.
Locker may choose to lean on Washington, who has been a familiar face for the past three seasons as the team goes through the inevitable growing pains as the team adjusts to Whisenhunt's coaching philosophies.
According to numberFire’s rankings set for PPR scoring, Washington is the WR48 while Hunter checks in as the WR102. While this may seem odd, the Titans projected depth chart shows Washington set to start over Hunter opposite of Kendall Wright. If that changes, so will the projection.
Hunter could very well outscore Washington by season’s end and have an Alshon Jeffery-like sophomore season as some are forecasting. But as a guy without an ADP even in 14-team leagues at the moment, Washington is still a viable option in Tennessee and barring injury, remains as a possible roadblock to a Hunter blowup.