It's Probably Time to Move on From Justin Hunter
Let me preface this article by saying I was dead wrong about Justin Hunter last year.
I was firmly aboard the Justin Hunter breakout train and called him a cheaper and better fantasy version of Cordarrelle Patterson. As it turns out, that article wasn't completely horrible process because both players were entirely useless in fantasy football last year.
Needless to say, the Hunter breakout didn't occur, and he struggled mightily last season. He failed to get open, didn't run the correct routes, and had inconsistent hands. In large part, the Titans were counting on Hunter to make a leap forward last season and when he didn't, it was a major reason their passing offense finished 29th in Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points (NEP), our signature metric for quantifying a team or player's production in comparison to expectation level, last season.
Making matters a bit worse, his season ended in early-December due to a lacerated spleen.
It's a new year, but that might not be enough for Hunter. The Titans drafted the giant touchdown-making receiver Dorial Green-Beckham in the second round, presumably to eventually become the Tennessee's "X" receiver. This pick was firmly a shot across Hunter's bow.
With the pressure perhaps off of Hunter to contribute immediately, should we ignore his lackluster 2014 season and believe he can emerge as a decent role player for the Titans and their new quarterback, Marcus Mariota? Let's dive in to Hunter's advanced metrics.
Failure To Launch
If you're new to numberFire, you may be unfamiliar of our signature Net Expected Points metric. Essentially, NEP quantifies how far above or below expectation a certain player has performed. You can read about it in detail in our glossary.
We'll be using Hunter's metrics from his rookie season in 2013 and his sophomore year in 2014 to frame a definitive idea of what type of player Hunter is.
Below is a table of Justin Hunter's advanced metrics for each of his individual seasons. Overall rankings among receivers with at least 40 targets in a given season are in parentheses. His per-game statistics are also included for a little added context.
|Year||Rec. NEP/Target||Target NEP||Tgts||Rec/G||Yards/G||TDs/G|
|2013||0.94 (5th of 105)||20.11 (54th of 105)||42||1.3||25.3||0.29|
|2014||0.65 (50th of 99)||-0.24 (87th of 99)||67||2.3||41.5||0.25|
What may be most concerning is Hunter's massive drop off in efficiency in 2014 when given more volume. In his rookie season, he was actually one of the most efficient receivers on a per-target basis, finishing fifth in Reception NEP per target. But -- when given a bigger workload -- his efficiency dropped to the middle of the pack (50th of 99 receivers).
Furthermore, Hunter was one of only 14 receivers to subtract expected points from his team's total each time he was targeted.
So, not only was Hunter one of the most inefficient players in the league last year, but he was also perhaps to blame for part of the offenses' overall stagnation. Both Nate Washington and Kendall Wright finished the 2014 season with a positive Target NEP contribution, finishing 51st and 56th respectively.
It's also probably unfair to fully blame Hunter's lack of success in 2014 on his own physical detriments and poor play. The Titans collectively put together one of the worst quarterbacking units in the league last season, as only Charlie Whitehurst finished the 2014 season with a positive Passing NEP per drop back (0.01).
In fact, of the 39 quarterbacks who had 155 drop backs last season, Charlie Whitehurst's 0.01 Pass NEP per drop back ranked 30th overall on the season. Zach Mettenberger (-0.05) finished the season 34th out of 39 while the now retired Jake Locker (-0.13) was an abysmal 37th.
Seeing horrible quarterback play certainly restricts a receiver from "breaking out", but the fact remains Hunter simply didn't play well enough at all with his increased workload last year.
The Final Straw?
Sure, maybe with improved quarterback play from first round pick Marcus Mariota, Hunter can finally emerge into a decent player. There is just two problems with that school of thought. How can a rookie quarterback trust a wide receiver who has been fairly unreliable thus far in his career? Rookie quarterbacks need stability early from their wide receivers -- which is something Hunter has not shown at all thus far.
Secondly, the Titans' staff clearly sent a message to Justin Hunter when they selected Dorial Green-Beckham 40th overall this May. Tennessee simply doesn't trust Hunter to develop in to their "X" receiver for the future. Maybe in his third year in the league Hunter can round out his skill set, become more reliable, and improve on his 20% drop rate in 2014 which ranked second-to-last among 90 qualified receivers.
Based off of what we've seen so far from Hunter, a major jump in overall effectiveness and efficiency may not be attainable. The Titans are screaming loud and clear they're threatening to move on from Hunter with the addition of Green-Beckham. It's probably for the best that they move on.