Justin Hunter: Fixing a Hole

USA TODAY Sports

Justin Hunter may be viewed as a luxury pick, but his addition could take this offense to a different level.

One of the hallmarks of a good executive and leader is the ability to identify problems, and implement solutions. Sounds simple enough, but often times at the highest levels of corporations these details are overlooked. No doubt all companies have a goal to improve. Yet, improvement is subjective without tangible goals and benchmarks. And, you can't have those things without first being honest about the problems in place.

You'd hope that every GM understood this, but, often times, it's not so clear. You never want to draft exclusively for need, as they ends up pigeonholing yourself into a limited talent pool. However, as a team tries to remove themselves from that philosophy and towards a pure BPA approach, you often find yourself building a collection of good talent, but not a team with direction. These philosophies are, of course, blurred in most cases. And, without a clear set of goals, the pressure and pace of the draft can often leave a team exiting the draft with a hodgepodge of players that looked good on their board at the time of the pick, but don't accomplish the goals the team had hoped. An example would be waiting on a player to fall to another pick, or avoiding "reaching" on a player even though he's rated the highest on your board and fills an important need.

Ruston Webster doesn't have this problem.

"For us, (Hunter) was on a different level grade-wise* than the rest of the players on the board," Webster said. "It was not even really close for us. With him sitting there we just saw this great opportunity to get a really talented wide receiver with a lot of upside. That was really it. We liked Justin Hunter a lot. We explored some things last night as it got into the latter parts of the draft. He was a target for us."

A Commitment to Building an Offense

2012 is a difficult season to evaluate as a Titans fan. There were numerous problems (many related to injury), and, for the most part, those are beyond the scope of this article. Two issues, however, help us understand the offensive direction this team was taking through the draft and free agency: interior pressure in the run and pass game and a need to threaten more on the perimeter in the vertical passing game. The first issue was addressed by acquiring the best guard talent available in free agency and the draft. The second (a problem that may have been thought of as more of a luxury pick) was acquired by trading up into the top of the second round. As Biddle writes, this philosophy was a departure from the Fisher era:

"(Heimerdinger) would be excited,'' Munchak said. "You're right, the offense for some reason it was about the third day (before) we started getting picks. I tried to get an offensive lineman for a lot of years myself and I had to become a head coach to get an offensive lineman drafted in the first round.''

With the first two draft picks being offensive players, defensive coordinator Jerry Gray and assistant Gregg Williams found themselves playing a waiting game.

"I think we're doing what is best for the football team,'' Munchak said. "This is a team thing. (Gray and Williams) realize that if we get more and more talent on offense, then we better stay on the field for 40 minutes and let them play 20 minutes, and all of a sudden they're better coaches. And vice-versa. If we load up on defense, then they ought to give up three points and we win, 7-3.''

While I have a fundamental disagreement about the time of possession metric, I think the basic idea here is correct. In general, championship teams are either elite on offense or defense. Sometimes both, but the odds of making a playoff run without being excellent on one side of the ball are slim. Again, that's one of those things that should be painfully obvious, yet we constantly see teams focusing on fixing all the problems all at once. The better strategy would be to work at being excellent on one side of the ball and then work on rebuilding the other side of the ball. While Munchak notes that the defense "ought to give up 3 points" if we load up defensively, I'd say those days are behind us. In recent years, we've seen more of a trend that excellent offensive teams can carry average defensive units, but the opposite isn't nearly as true. The personnel moves recently give me hope that this front office shares this philosophy. By all accounts they are working to build a top tier offensive unit.

All Tall Receivers are Not Created Equal

"Comparisons are tough for a player like that," Titans director of scouting Blake Beddingfield said. "He’s 6-foot-4, 195 pounds and runs a 4.37 (in the 40-yard dash). The comparables are tough just because there are very few of those guys. It’s not compared to most people that are 6-4 and 195. It’s tough to compare those kinds of guys. He’s a rare athlete. He has very nice physical traits that add on speed and his range. Yet he is programmed. He’s played in a good system for a good offensive coordinator. He’s had other talent around him and a quarterback that has a pro arm."

Fans often want to lump prospects together. In that regard, Hunter might be viewed as just another tall receiver. As you dig into the data, the number of receivers who are 6'4"+ and run sub 4.45 40's are exceedingly rare.

NFL Combine Data has aggregated this information since 1999. Over that period:

Receivers 6'4" or taller: 62

Among 6'4"+, the number that have run sub 4.45: 7

Among that group that has a vertical over 38": 4 - Justin Hunter, Tyrone Calico, Stephen Hill, Calvin Johnson

The low hanging fruit would be to dismiss Calico, and point out Hill's rookie struggles. Those points may or may not have merit. It's not what is important here. The point is what the Titans scout references above.

Since 1999, there have been 484 receivers drafted. Of those prospects, only .8% have had this kind of skill set. Put another way, if you were to randomly select 100 receivers over the past 15 years, odds are that not one of them would have the skill set that Justin Hunter does.

Understanding Where Justin Hunter Fits

Heading into the draft, I'd say most Titans fans would have considered our receiving corps a strength. Kenny Britt looked like he was returning to his former self (in a good way). Our rookie receiver, Wright, led all Titans receivers in receptions. And, Washington, our leading receiver by yardage, maintained an explosive Y/R of 16.2 working from the slot. Despite these things, Nate Washington will find himself as the odd man out.

Screen_shot_2013-05-03_at_11

This is a big play that goes for a 46 yard gain, despite being the "wrong read". The Colts show a two high look but roll to man under with a single high safety. Protection picks up the six man pressure well (something we should expect to see more in 2013). Nate works from the slot and breaks across the face of both safeties. He's the "right" read here. Kenny runs a go route, beats his man, commands attention from the single high safety, and still makes the catch.

What interests me on this play is Kendall Wright. He runs a comeback route, and fails to get any separation. Given the result, this isn't really a problem, but big picture it's an issue if Wright were to stay primarily at the Z. Wright isn't enough of a technician yet to win consistently on the outside, nor is he the type of athlete that's going to win naturally on talent alone. He can play all three spots, but he fits in the slot. I firmly believe that he can do everything Nate Washington can do and then some. He's got more wiggle, and threatens more with the ball in his hands.

Now, what if Justin Hunter is thrown into this corps? Hunter takes over Wright's spot at the Z, and Wright slides into the slot. I don't think this team skips a beat with Wright replacing Washington at the slot position. And, on this play, he'll find the same open space from the slot. However, Hunter commands a different level of respect. His vertical skill set is on an entirely different level. Not only his ability to beat you in a straight line, but also the leaping capacity to go up and over defenders. Despite other issues in Hunter's game, he's got the vertical skill set in spades. It brings to mind an article on the Seahawks scouting heading into the draft:

From what I understand, you can have a lot of tension between scouts and coaches and front office when scouts give high grades to players but the coaching staff or front office wants nothing to do with that guy. Carroll's philosophy is to find out what a player does well and then fit him into the system and allow him to do it.

"It gives you more flexibility to keep guys alive," Southwest region scout Matt Berry told Farnsworth. "If a guy can play, that gives you hope that they're going to find a way to make that guy's skill set fit with everybody else. So you try not to pick apart the things they can't do. You keep your focus on what they can do."

Justin Hunter may turn out to be a one trick pony. In many ways, Randy Moss had the same "problem". It turns out, though, that this one trick is arguably the most dangerous and valuable of them all at the receiver position. Even if Hunter is only targeted a handful of times a game, the vertical skill set commands respect from defensive coordinators. They can bring 6 man pressure, but that leaves either Britt or Hunter in single coverage on the edges. Each of them more than capable of dominating undersized corners on the way to the endzone. The possibility of getting vertical on each side of the field will force more two high looks, which results in better numbers in the box and a (theoretically) more productive running game.

Reconciling the Additions with Improvement in 2013

With the mess we saw in 2012, the deductive leap from bad offense -> good offense with just a few additions may seem like a stretch, but that's where I find myself today. Re-visiting the 2012 tape, I saw a different player in Locker before and after the injury. That issue was magnified by the slew of injuries this team endured across the offensive line; a unit that's interior was already below average when healthy. Locker has his issues. Read progression and pocket awareness/mobility being the two that need the most improvement. But, if we're being honest about it, we were asking Jake to make chicken salad out of chicken &*^% last year. The lack of an interior line killed the run game and the vertical passing game. Further, the only vertical threat we had for most of the year was up the seam.

Looking ahead to 2013, the tools are there if our triggerman can take the next step. The run game is bound to improve. And, while CJ has constant issues creating on his own, there's no denying his explosiveness when the holes are there. An improved run game can only help what appears on paper to be a threatening group of receivers in the vertical passing game. The additions to the interior of the offensive line provide a base that will allow this offense to do the conventional things an offense should be able to do. It's the drafting of Justin Hunter, and his rare skillset, that could take this offense to another level.

*I remember immediately after the trade details were released that there was some ridicule over the terms. By nearly all accounts, the Titans gave up "too much". I found the judgements silly, if only because they were entirely too premature. At the end of the day, draft picks amount to draft day capital. Resources by which a team can use to acquire commodities to build their organizations. In a competitive scenario and efficient marketplace, prices are going to get driven up. These environments produce higher values for those selling into them. What's interesting about the draft is that, while most teams have relatively similar values on the picks being traded, the commodities being acquired vary widely in value based on team need, scheme, and scouting. The Titans clearly had conviction in the talent, and paid an "over market" price by the draft value matrices that draftniks treat as gospel. But, if Hunter pans out into a top 10 talent (a grade the Titans may have had on him), then I think the value is just fine.

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