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How can Justin Hunter help the Bills?

While not directly replacing Sammy Watkins, the man who takes his roster spot for the time being is an intriguing athlete.

With the news of Sammy Watkins landing on IR still fresh, it’s easy to feel as if this is just the latest in a series of Billsian moments since the Music City Miracle forward lateral* that ended Buffalo’s last postseason game. It’s hard for me even to think about the Tennessee Titans, much less discuss them, but as fate may have it, the Bills could have just made a shrewd acquisition made possible only due to the Titans giving up on former second round pick Justin Hunter. The rangy athlete was claimed off of waivers yesterday, having been cut by the Dolphins after failing to make the Titans’ roster for a fourth consecutive season. What can this cast-off do to help the Bills’ passing offense?

*I’m aware that computer analysis found that Frank Wycheck’s pass was not forward. I cannot believe it. I know what my eyes saw!

Buffalo Bills v Tennessee Titans Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images


Justin Hunter gives the Bills an element that they sorely lack in the passing game: size. At 6’4”, he is the team’s largest receiver by far; add to that a 39.5” vertical and 33 1/4” arms, and you have a man with a greater catch radius than any receiver the Bills have had since, well...James Hardy. Okay, so that isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, but what Hardy lacked was any sort of burst and top-end quickness, which is exactly what Hunter has. His 4.44 40-yard dash time is exceptional, and allowed him to average 16.4 yards per catch with Tennessee over his three years there. His explosion, combined with Tyrod Taylor’s love of the homerun ball, could equal a greater deal of success for Hunter than he saw in Nashville. His size and leaping ability make him an obvious target in red zone situations, as well.


If you look at Hunter’s overall performance, he just hasn’t been very productive. As a second-round pick, he only played in the majority of the team’s snaps one out of three seasons (2014). He caught 68 passes on 140 targets over that time, totaling 1116 yards and 8 touchdowns. In his rookie season, he only played on 31% of the team’s offensive snaps, and the Titans ran more two tight end sets than they did three-wide sets. In his second season, he saw a huge uptick in playing time (61% of snaps), but not much of an increase in terms of production; his “slash line” (to borrow a baseball phrase) was 18/354/4 as a rookie, and 28/498/3 in his second year. In his third year, he saw his catch efficiency number rise (from 42% to 71%), but not his overall production, as he slashed 22/264/1 on 36% of the team’s snaps. He had been demoted, essentially, to the team’s 4th receiver spot in 2015, having been passed by Harry Douglas on the depth chart. With a new GM, offensive coordinator, and head coach in town for 2016, the Titans cut him.

Why the Struggles?

Some negatives about Hunter from his combine page suggest that Hunter lacked physicality coming out of school, and they made a point to note that he was a poor and often unwilling run blocker. This speaks to a player’s motivation. Titans’ fans weren’t exactly broken up over his release, as evidenced by this brief post breaking the news on Music City Miracles. Looking at his receiving numbers, however, it’s possible to see how the Titans’ offense could have suppressed his overall potential and ability. The team combined to win 12 games in Hunter’s 3 years there, with a high water mark of 7-9 in his rookie year. In that same year, the team threw the ball 527 times, with 330 of those passes going to Kendall Wright, Nate Washington, and Delanie Walker. Hunter was targeted 42 times in 14 games. In 2014, the 2-14 Titans had Charlie Whitehurst, Zach Mettenberger, and Jake Locker throwing passes; they threw it 513 times, with Hunter the recipient of 67 targets in 12 games (8 starts). In 2015, Marcus Mariota, Zach Mettenberger, and Alex Tanney combined to throw 551 passes, 133 of which went to Delanie Walker. No other Titan saw more than 72 targets, and no Tennessee receiver topped 36 receptions (Walker led the team in catches with 94). Hunter was targeted 31 times in 9 games (5 starts), slashing 22/264/1. In other words, Hunter has not played in a system where he was given much of an opportunity to excel. He has missed games due to injury (13 over 3 years), which certainly isn’t something we want to think about in light of Sammy’s struggles to stay on the field; however, he has not had a season where he was more than the fourth option in the passing game.

Best/Worst Case Scenarios?

If Hunter is a quick study who finds some chemistry with his seventh different quarterback in four NFL seasons, it’s possible that the Bills could have found a diamond-in-the-rough. He presents a matchup nightmare in the red zone, which could be his only role early on (I expect to see him in those situations exclusively on Sunday if he sees the field at all). As evidenced by this long touchdown against the Browns in 2014, Hunter’s speed is first-class. Yes, the coverage is bad, but look at the run after the catch; he appears to put forth so little effort in burning Buster Skrine to the house that it’s embarrassing. Putting that kind of “go up and get it” athlete outside in an already-potent deep offense makes one of Buffalo’s greatest strengths even stronger. This clip from last season is a bit of a two-for-one, showing Hunter’s strong route running ability on a crisp slant, his use of his hands to secure a tough catch, his use of his frame to completely erase the corner on the throw, and then his effectiveness as a decoy on the two-point conversion.

If Hunter shows the same issues he had in Tennessee (lack of maturity, lack of fire and intensity, inconsistency overall), then Buffalo has at least kicked the tires on a spectacular athlete who should have been humbled. He’s been released twice now in less than a month; if that isn’t a wake-up call, then nothing may be. I’ve been on the Hunter bandwagon since he was initially released in early September, and I admit that there’s around a 70% chance that he amounts to nothing (that’s a highly scientific calculation, mind you).

Hunter might be replacing Sammy Watkins, but he doesn’t have to be Sammy. He doesn’t even have to be the guy he was during his Junior year with the Tennessee Volunteers (73/1083/9). He has to prove that he’s received the message Miami and Tennessee sent him. Otherwise, Buffalo may send him the same message, with no possibility of furthering his career.

All snap count data and pro stats courtesy of profootballreference