Is Justin Hunter Still a Breakout Candidate?

There were high hopes surrounding Justin Hunter prior to this season, but he's been quiet through two weeks. Will he eventually break through?

The Justin Hunter hype train was in full effect this offseason. The extremely talented and raw receiver had a relatively quiet rookie season, but seemed positioned for a bigger role in the Titans’ offense in 2014.

A big-play talent like Hunter potentially seeing increased volume is always something that will excite fantasy owners, and it showed in Hunter’s average draft position. While he never garnered the hype that made teammate Bishop Sankey an early-to-mid round selection, Hunter was regularly drafted amongst the top 100 players despite having only 18 receptions last season.

Through two games, it’s highly unclear whether Hunter’s breakout campaign is well underway, or if the young wideout isn’t quite ready for fantasy stardom. This is the main question at hand, and one that is absolutely worth addressing. Is Hunter waiver-wire fodder, or a stud ready to let loose?

Getting on the Field

Playing time is a main obstacle to production for any young player. As a rookie in 2013, Hunter was not given a ton of opportunity to shine. He ran just 220 pass routes, a distant third most among Titans receivers, and the fifth most on the team overall. For reference, a starting receiver typically runs at least 550-plus passing routes over the course of a season, so Hunter was not even getting half the reps of a starter. It’s understandable considering he came into the league extremely unpolished, and his effort has come into question at times.

Entering 2014, Hunter was primed for a bigger role in the Titans offense. With Nate Washington on the wrong side of 30 and Chris Johnson out of the picture in the running game, it was assumed Hunter would see far more work this year than he did his rookie season.

Thus far? That line of thinking seems to be working out.

Hunter has run 71 routes through two games, over one-third of his total from all of last season. While Washington, Kendall Wright, and Delanie Walker all have more routes run, they are all within six routes run of each other. His 35.5 routes-per-game average puts him on pace for 568 on the season, meaning Hunter is actually receiving the full slate of starters work that many hoped he would get.

While his production hasn’t been excellent yet, know that Hunter is getting the opportunity that owners hoped he would receive.

What Do the Metrics Say?

At numberFire, we like to evaluate player-performance using our signature Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. For those newer to the site, NEP is our very own statistic that shows how many expected points a player is adding to his team’s total through his on field performance (see more on NEP in our glossary).

In 2013, Hunter was a metrics darling. While his raw numbers (18 catches, 42 targets, 354 yards, 4 touchdowns) were nothing special, Hunter was actually an extremely efficient player last season. Among wide receivers with at least 10 receptions in 2013, Hunter’s Reception NEP per target of 0.94 was sixth best. That means every time Hunter was targeted, the Titans were adding nearly one full point to their expected scoring total. This is mostly due to Hunter’s fantastic big-play ability, as evidenced by his near 19.7 yards per catch average last year.

This season, Hunter’s NEP-metrics are still looking fairly good. Through two weeks, his Reception NEP is a respectable 35th in the league. His Reception NEP per target has returned to Earth, and now stands at 0.54. While not nearly as good as his ridiculous 2013 figure, it's still a solid mark versus other wideouts in the league.

One potential area of concern with Hunter comes with his catch rate, which is simply the percentage of his targets that he catches. Last season, his catch rate stood at a below-average 42.86%, and that figure has dropped to 35.71% this season. His catch rate this season is really bad, but there is an explanation for it. As a big-play receiver, Hunter sees a lot of his targets deep down field. Thus far, five of his 14 targets have come on throws of 20 or more yards. Few receivers see as high a percentage of their targets coming on deep balls, naturally leading to Hunter having a lower catch rate. His deep-threat status will hurt his week-to-week consistency, but he has the type of ability and opportunity that could result in several big plays.

High on Hunter?

Through the first two weeks of the season, it has become clear that the Titans are willing to give Hunter the field-time that his fantasy owners were hoping for. While the playing time and the targets have been there, Hunter has yet to provide meaningful impact in fantasy lineups.

Part of Hunter’s lack of production can be chalked up to the mediocre play of Jake Locker. His Passing NEP stands at 19th among quarterbacks in 2014, and while he’s thrown three touchdown passes, two of them have gone to Delanie Walker. His Week 2 performance, too, was dreadful.

Big play receivers, by nature, are going to be relatively erratic. While the game-breaking plays Hunter is capable of have yet to come in 2014, it won’t be long until he breaks off some huge catches. What you want to be reassured of in the early going is that your sleepers (or late-round picks in general) are getting the requisite playing time to put up meaningful stats. In Hunter’s case, that’s absolutely what is happening, and it’s only a matter of time until the good times come.