Are we being duped again, or could we really be in for a season in which Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Justin Hunter takes on a bigger role than anticipated? As a height and speed guy who was a former second-round pick, several teams have experienced the midsummer mirage of Hunter’s practice prowess, only to see it fade once practices begin to resemble something more akin to football.
That’s why it caught my eye when Bob Labriola mentioned him recently in a segment of Asked and Answered for the team’s website. Responding to a question regarding the team’s depth at wide receiver without Martavis Bryant, Labriola cited Hunter’s name among the top four players on the depth chart.
“The top of the depth chart here includes Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Justin Hunter, and James Washington”, he wrote. “Hunter had a strong offseason, and Washington looks to be someone who should be able to contribute as a rookie. The rest of it will be sorted out at training camp”.
Hunter has been running with the first-team offense basically throughout the spring thanks to the fact that Smith-Schuster has not practiced while dealing with some sort of injury. When Brown missed time, Marcus Tucker was also participating with the first-team offense, but it was Hunter that Labriola mentioned.
He was also on the tip of Ramon Foster’s tongue, who late during spring practices was asked for the names of players he believed stood out to him. “He’s making plays I didn’t see him make all of last year, for sure”, the 10th-year veteran said. “Justin’s looking like a guy, I wouldn’t be surprised if Justin has a really good year this year. Deep balls, high jump-balls, he’s just catching combat catches. Justin is looking really good”.
I would ordinarily dismiss comments about Hunter’s performances in practice, but Foster is a more salient observer than most, and the fact that he mentioned the veteran was doing things this year that he wasn’t a year ago drew in my interest.
The Steelers originally signed Hunter during unrestricted free agency last March. At the time, Bryant was still suspended and Smith-Schuster was preparing for the draft. The known top of the depth chart by that point was looking to be Brown, Sammie Coates, and Eli Rogers.
Now with Smith-Schuster and Washington flanking Brown, it will probably be difficult for whoever is next up off the bench to carve out much playing time for himself, but if it really ends up being Hunter, then he can certainly find a niche as a deep threat and red-zone target.