The fact that wide receiver Justin Hunter was signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers early on during the offseason free agency period leads one to believe he has a legitimate chance of sticking around when the final roster cuts are made just ahead of the start of the regular season. After all, if you look back at the history of the Steelers early offseason free agent signings during the time that general manager Kevin Colbert has been with the team, it’s very rare that a player doesn’t make the final cuts. While those probabilities are fun to look at, Hunter’s roster spot is far from secure at this point just the same.
With fellow Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant now conditionally reinstated and presumably back on the right path following his year-long suspension, in addition to the team selecting former USC wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Hunter will presumably be battling either wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey or Sammie Coates, or perhaps even both, for a roster spot during training camp. None of this is new news, however, as that’s pretty much been the talk ever since he signed.
By no means should Hunter currently be counting heads in the Steelers wide receiver room as we sit here in the middle of June as so much can happen in terms of injuries between now and the final roster cut-down day. However, while I’m not exactly sure how Hunter will spend his next six weeks preparing for training camp, it would be advisable for him to research the past of Heyward-Bey during his time in Pittsburgh.
When Heyward-Bey originally signed with the Steelers in April of 2014, he arrived in Pittsburgh with a resume quite like the one Hunter currently carries with him. Both players entered the NFL with impressive college backgrounds in addition to possessing both speed and height. Both players were also early-round draft picks that ultimately failed to live up to their expected potentials.
After an uninspiring four-year start to his career with the Oakland Raiders, Heyward-Bey found himself with one foot out of the NFL when the team that drafted him released him in March of 2013. After roughly two weeks on the street, the Indianapolis Colts signed Heyward-Bey to a one-year contract and while the Maryland product wound up staring the first 10 regular season games for his new team, he was relegated to mostly a backup role during the final half of the schedule.
Instead of sulking and planning for a potential post-football life, Heyward-Bey concentrated his efforts on becoming a special teams contributor for the Colts, which is a phase of football he had never had to experience before, reportedly even as far back as his high school days. As it turned out, Heyward-Bey showed a knack for being able to cover both punts and kickoffs for the Colts during their final three regular season games as well as both of their playoff contests.
Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, Heyward-Bey continued to exhibit an ability to contribute on special teams on his way to registering 11 total tackles in that phase of the game over the course of the last three regular seasons. Will Heyward-Bey see a fourth season with the Steelers? It’s hard to tell right now and Hunter might ultimately have a say in whether or not he does if he can duplicate his competitor’s recent accomplishments and that of course won’t be easy.
As far as I can tell, Hunter has yet to play a single special teams snap since he arrived in the league in 2013 as a second-round draft pick of the Tennessee Titans. Additionally, because he was a star player during his high school and college days, it’s hard to imagine him having to play on special teams much, if any, during that span of years outside of occasionally returning a few punts, which he apparently did four times while at Tennessee.
While Hunter might not yet have any experience at covering punts and kickoffs, much like Heyward-Bey, he presumably has the build and athleticism to do it and especially if his current listed measurables of 6-4, 203 are correct. This also assumes he still has close to the 4.4 speed he possessed coming out of college.
When training camp and the preseason games finally get underway, it certainly will be fun to watch Hunter play as a wide receiver because even though he has only registered 78 career receptions since entering the league, he has averaged 16.7 yards per catch. In fact, that average is sixth-best of all wide receivers who have caught 75 or more passes since 2013, his first year in the league. With that said, I urge all of you to pay close attention to how Hunter is used and how he performs on special teams during training camp and the team’s four preseason games as that key phase of his game could ultimately decide whether or not he sticks around in September and perhaps even ultimately forcing Heyward-Bey out of the league for good.