As Alex Kozora reported yesterday, the Pittsburgh Steelers saw free agent wide receiver Justin Hunter lining up with their first-team offense to open training camp, playing across from All-Pro Antonio Brown. I would urge caution before reading all too much into this, although I will note that there is no way in which it could be construed as a negative.
It is obvious that Hunter, a fifth-year veteran and a former second-round pick, has an opportunity to make the 53-man roster. It helps that his quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, has brought him up on occasion without being prompted to, so having a rapport with the man throwing the football is a feather in your cap, for sure.
But remember the basic fact that the reason Hunter is lining up where he is right now is because of the players who are not there. With both Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates not present on the field for the early days of training camp, it is not exactly a shock to see Hunter playing with the ones.
For one thing, he is the least experienced with the team among veteran receivers, and they want to see what he is capable of doing. The Steelers already have a degree of information on Darrius Heyward-Bey and Cobi Hamilton, so it would behoove them to get an early look at Hunter with the first-team offense while the easy opportunity for it is there.
It’s also obviously important to retain the perspective that this is just the first day of practice, and things can change quickly. By the time you read this, it could be Heyward-Bey or Hamilton or even Demarcus Ayers or somebody else who is being given first-team reps with the offense. With Bryant and Coates absent, there will be opportunities for experimentation.
We do know that Hunter is of course capable of playing football in the NFL, even if he has never lived up to his draft status. Could he be better while playing with a better quarterback? Of course. But the basic reality is that it will be difficult for him to find playing time unless multiple things go wrong.
It can probably be presumed with reasonable satisfaction that the players who are more likely to see playing time on offense ahead of him during the course of the regular season on offense are Brown, Bryant, Eli Rogers, and JuJu Smith-Schuster. They didn’t draft the rookie in the second round to let him sit on the bench.
When you are looking at a player who is not even in the top three receivers, you are already starting to get into the realm of players who have to be capable of contributing on special teams, and basically everybody is a more notable contributor on special teams than is Hunter.
Heyward-Bey is the king of special teams among the wide receivers, and it would be really great if select people could stop forgetting or dismissing this reality. But both Coates and Hamilton are quality contributors on special teams as well.
Hunter is somebody who is probably under the most reasonable scenario going to be a fourth or fifth wide receiver on this team at best. Getting first-team reps on the opening day or training camp when multiple notable players at his position are missing is not something that should be read into too deeply just yet. Let’s see where it goes from here.