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The Inside on Justin Hunter

The Steelers added a big, fast and athletic wide receiver in Justin Hunter. Read what SCI publisher Jim Wexell has learned about the team's first free-agent addition.

The play that resulted in Justin Hunter's lacerated spleen has been a microsm of his NFL career to this point.

A tall, fast and athletic wide receiver, Hunter signed today with the Pittsburgh Steelers as the team's first outside free agent in 2017.

He's a 6-4, 203-pounder who ran a 4.44 at his 2013 NFL Combine with a pro-day vertical jump of 40 1/2 inches and a Division One track background. 

The high school teammate of Shamarko Thomas, Hunter was drafted with the second pick of the second round in 2013 by Coach Mike Munchak and the Tennessee Titans.

Labeled a "poor man's A.J. Green" by Pro Football Weekly, Hunter has yet to live up to his potential but is always in the back of opposing coaches' minds as a deep threat.

Called "a really nice kid" and "shy and funny" by sources who know him from his three seasons with the Titans, Hunter had a couple of incidents that may have sent the opposite message throughout the NFL.

Late in his rookie season, as he was coming on strong following a three-week stretch in which he recorded two 100-yard receiving games, Hunter and a teammate were suspended for a game by Munchak for an unspecified violation of team rules. Hunter hasn't had a 100-yard game since.

A year and a half later, in the summer of 2015, Hunter was charged with felonious assault after a July 3 bar fight in his hometown of Virginia Beach. He allegedly broke a man's jaw after that man's group of friends allegedly picked a fight with Hunter. The charged was dropped to misdemeanor assault and Hunter was found not guilty in the fall of that year.

Hunter was waived by the Titans at the end of the 2016 training camp and claimed by the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 4. The Dolphins waived him on Sept. 28 and he was picked up by the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 30. He spent the rest of the season with the Bills and played against the Steelers in December, although he wasn't targeted in the game.

In his career, Hunter has started 18 games and caught 78 passes for 1,305 yards (16.7 avg.) and 12 touchdowns. He's been targeted 163 times but has come up with the catch only 48 percent of the time. That low percentage may have something to do with the quarterbacks with whom Hunter has played, since he's only been credited with five career drops.

Since coming out of Tennessee, where he returned from a torn ACL to catch 73 passes for 1,083 yards and nine touchdowns in his final college season, Hunter has caught passes from the following quarterbacks: 

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jake Locker, Charlie Whitehurst, rookie Zach Mettenberger, rookie Marcus Mariota, Tyrod Taylor and E.J. Manuel. 

Those quarterbacks have combined to complete 59.7 percent of their passes in their combined careers. Hunter's new quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, has completed 64.1 percent of his passes.

The other Steelers quarterback on that list, Mettenberger, was partly responsible for Hunter's lacerated kidney. He was the quarterback for the Titans when they played in Houston against the Texans in October of 2014. Both Mettenberger and then-Coach Ken Whisenhunt said after the game that Mettenberger had misread the route and the defense when he threw to Hunter with the first pass of the game. Texans safety Danieal Manning blasted Hunter and the pass was intercepted by Johnathan Joseph. 

Hunter returned to play in the game but began feeling ill in the second half and spit up blood. He was taken to an area hospital, spent the night, missed the next game and returned to play in the final four games. What had been his best season finished with only eight more catches following the injury. 

A source at the game said the quarterback did misread the play but wondered whether Hunter's lack of effort for the ball might have had something to do with the injury as well.

"I honestly believe he is scared of being hurt," the source said. "Has been since his knee injury at UT. He seems to shy away from contact. The physical ability is there, but I think it's been mental with him."

Perhaps a new environment, a new quarterback and veteran receivers coach Richard Mann will combine to help Hunter realize his potential. The soon-to-be 26-year-old is also engaged to marry his long-time girlfriend, with whom he has two children.

With the Steelers, Hunter -- who signed a one-year contract -- will likely compete with wideouts Cobi HamiltonSammie Coates and Darrius Heyward-Bey to back up Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant as wideouts. Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers are expected to compete for the slot positions.


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