Yesterday afternoon, the dam finally broke. Or, at least, a tiny crack surfaced, and out leaked the 6’4” former third-round draft pick, wide receiver Justin Hunter. The Pittsburgh Steelers have finally inked their first outside free agent after several days of trying.
Hunter was one of four free agents that the Steelers brought in for a visit at their facilities and was the only one who didn’t end up signing elsewhere within the next 24 hours, although all of them ended up returning to teams that they had previously played for.
Now he comes in as a barrel full of potential and not a great deal else. After all, it is often difficult to know what to make of a wide receiver who has gone through long stretches of inferior quarterback play. To give you an idea, the quarterback he has seen the most passes from is third on the Steelers’ depth chart.
As pointed out yesterday, what Hunter is really being brought in for more than anything is insurance. While he may not be a perfect match, his physical traits very clearly parallel that of Martavis Bryant’s in several key aspects, which make him an enticing prospect, even if he doesn’t have the same short-area burst that makes Bryant such a dangerous yards-after-catch option.
It is an interesting signing, however, that I believe is a boon for their depth chart that I suspect is in response to the position that they found themselves in a season ago, albeit the odds of the circumstances that led to that situation are unlikely to be repeated.
Recall, of course, that Bryant’s suspension was the first domino to fall. Markus Wheaton’s shoulder injury was next, followed by Sammie Coates’ foot injury. With Darrius Heyward-Bey’s foot injury topping things off, the Steelers literally lost four of their top five wide receivers, or six including Eli Rogers, who was on injured reserve his rookie season.
The team was able to get some positive contributions out of Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers, but make no mistake about it, they are bottom-of-the-roster players, at least until proven otherwise. A fully healthy year with Coates, Wheaton, and Heyward-Bey could have certainly played out differently.
But the Steelers don’t want to have to rely on Heyward-Bey to contribute on offense, which became necessary with Bryant’s suspension. Bringing in Hunter gives them another tall target with speed who has more reliable—or less unreliable—hands.
The fact that they did lose Wheaton is not an unimportant point. Even if he wasn’t expected to be re-signed, he still needed replacing, and perhaps the acquisition of Hunter will satisfy their wide receiver needs for the offseason.
Add in the reality that we have still yet to see any proof that Coates’ hand injury from last season will not be an issue this year and we have yet another explanation for the Hunter signing. His presence provides a firewall for the near-worst-case scenario that they were set up with a year ago.