Margus Hunt, slow to make his mark in his third year with the Bengals, has been dealt another setback. The defensive end will miss the remainder of Organized Team Activities and the veteran minicamp with a back injury.
The former second-round draft pick out of Southern Methodist University has reaggravated a pre-existing injury, according to reports. He's taking extra measures the rest of OTAs to make sure that it doesn't keep him out of training camp.
The 6-foot-8, 290-pound Estonian is "optimistic" that he'll be ready for the start of training camp. He'd better be, if he wants to make the team. Hunt, a former first-team all-Conference USA honoree at SMU, is buried on the Bengals' depth chart. This is the year that the Bengals were hoping to get something out of him, but in the second half of last season he injured his ankle, causing him to miss four games before his return, and now his old back injury is flaring up.
"We're going day-by-day," he told ESPN. "I’m trying to be back as soon as possible. Training camp is still in the mix -- it's just when in training camp that's the question." He added that the injury does not require surgery. But he's got a few months of rehab in front of him, putting the start of training camp in jeopardy.
A prime example of the Bengals' fascination with size, freak athletes and prospects, Hunt has the potential to be the perfect storm of a mistake. Since he was taken with the 53rd overall pick in 2013, the Bengals have drafted defensive end Will Clarke and re-signed defensive end Michael Johnson, who was originally let go because the Bengals thought they had something with their 6-8 find.
They have been looking for Hunt ever since.
More freak athlete than football player, Hunt is one of the tallest players in the NFL. He topped the 2012 "Freak List" compiled by CBSSports.com writer Bruce Feldman, who puts together an annual list of the top 10 college football players he considers the most freakish athletes. At the time, Feldman said Hunt "sounds like a PlayStation football creation." Hunt helped back it up at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine by running a 4.6-second 40-yard dash, posting a vertical leap of 34.5 inches and doing 38 bench-press repetitions.
After the draft, former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer compared Hunt to Johnson, saying both players were very raw coming out of college but had the potential to be great. The Bengals have been waiting on Johnson. They're now in Round 2 of the wait. Now, they're waiting on Hunt.
Before taking up football, Hunt threw the discus and shot put as a track and field weight man. He's a former world junior record holder in the discus. With a connection to an SMU track and field coach, Hunt went to SMU initially interested in that sport. He wanted to train with the SMU coach, who gained a reputation while working with Estonian 2004 Olympic bronze medalist discus thrower Aleksander Tammert.
Hunt began attending the college part-time, but the track and field program was cut. One thing led to another. He ran a 4.7-second 40-yard dash for SMU football coach June Jones, who subsequently offered him a scholarship, and he wound up in shoulder pads.
Hunt did enough in four years on the football field at SMU to warrant being drafted ahead of running backs Montee Ball (58th overall in 2013) and Eddie Lacy (61st). He blocked eight kicks in his first 14 games, 17 overall, including an NCAA-record 10 blocked field goals. He closed his college career with 16.5 sacks. He was named MVP of the 2012 Hawaii Bowl. The Bengals envisioned him becoming a pass-swatter and a kick-blocker.
But the big guy has yet to make a dent in the league. Not only has Hunt been a slow developer, he's been injury-prone, stunting his growth after coming out of college as one of the more intriguing draft prospects. The back injury, he said, dates to 2012 during his SMU days. In fact, he got hurt the summer before his senior year. He said the last couple of years it has been under control and not an issue. It became an issue when Hunt returned to Cincinnati for OTAs.
He said he aggravated the injury while lifting weights, and hinted that he might have been pushing himself too hard during lifting sessions in a bid to make an impact, at long last. "You’re in that adrenaline rush with the guys and you want to compete," he told ESPN's Coley Harvey. "And, everybody's in the zone. But, one bad move …"
The injury could have devastating consequences. Hunt, already behind the learning curve on the gridiron, now has no way to shorten it after Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said that he anticipated this would be the 27-year-old's most important offseason. Hunt didn't start playing football until college, and he doesn't have a lot of classroom time to better help him digest defensive concepts.
The Bengals were easing him in his first two seasons as he learned the game at NFL speed. He played in 12 games as a reserve, totaling seven tackles, a sack and a pass defensed last year, after getting into 10 games as a rookie. He has 10 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 22 career games with no starts.