Even though he was the first of the four outside free agents signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers so far this offseason, new wide receiver Justin Hunter appears to be the one that is talked about the least. With that said, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin did talk about the team’s newest pass catcher during the Tuesday morning AFC coaches breakfast and what it was that attracted the team to him.
“He’s big and fast,” Tomlin said of Hunter, according to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He’s been a consistent big-play maker, not only since he’s been in the league, but in college. I was at his pro day when he came out of the University of Tennessee. He’s a Virginia Beach-area guy like I am. I’ve known about him for some time. Those type of attributes are attractive to us.”
As you can see and as I pointed out right after the Steelers signed Hunter, it isn’t hard to understand why Hunter is now a Steeler. First, Tomlin always seems to keep close tabs on players who are from or played near his hometown of Hampton, Va. Second, Tomlin and Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley both attended Hunter’s 2013 pro day. Third, while Hunter’s overall play on the field certainly can’t be compared to what fellow Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant has put on tape so far during his young career, his stats and combine measurables certainly do match up outside of total games played and total targets.
You can frame Hunter’s addition however you want. He can be considered insurance for the previous troubled Bryant, insurance for the seemingly slow developing and banged-up Sammie Coates, or just a body signed to replace former Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton, who signed a two-year free agent contract with the Chicago Bears a few weeks ago.
In the past, players who signed free agent contracts with the Steelers early on in the offseason are usually considered locks to ultimately make the team’s final 53-man roster out of training camp. However, when it comes to Hunter this year, it would probably be foolish to bet the farm on him achieving that goal. In fact, the Steelers currently only have $30,000 invested in Hunter as that was the meager signing bonus he was given as part of the one-year, $855,000 contract that he signed. Another $50,000 awaits Hunter should he ultimately make the final 53-man roster out of training camp along with a $775,000 base salary.
Hunters primary competition during training camp figures to be the third-year Coates and veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey. Both, however, have decent special teams resumes which is something Hunter can’t currently claim. As for Coates, specifically, it doesn’t sound like Tomlin is ready to give up on him as a pass catching weapon after he fell off the map last season thanks to finger injuries he suffered in the team’s Week 5 game against the New York Jets.
“I expect him to take another leap,” Tomlin said of Coates, according to Dulac. “I think he took a significant leap from Year No. 1 to Year No. 2, one that we expect. He faced some adversity throughout the journey with injuries and so forth. I expect him to continue to grow, evolve and come with the level of preparedness that he had last year. And hopefully, with the level of improvement he had last year.”
More than anything else, Hunter should provide some decent competition for Coates and Heyward-Bey during training camp and it sounds like Tomlin is looking forward to those battles.
“I’m excited about watching those guys sort themselves out,” Tomlin said. “We’re not short of candidates and capable men. That’s a great place to start.”