Electrifying stars like Tavon Austin and Cordarrelle Patterson have made their cases to be the top receiver taken in the 2013 NFL draft, but the Sideline View's Lance Zierlein recently cautioned that an under-the-radar wideout may end up being the first pass-catcher selected.
That under-the-radar wideout, one of Patterson's teammates, is Justin Hunter.
Hunter was quietly a very good player for the Volunteers last year, and it was his success that facilitated Cordarrelle Patterson's phenomenal season.
Said Todd McShay of Hunter,
If you're looking for someone to run vertical routes and stretch the field … a poor man's Randy Moss, that's what Justin Hunter is. … He's a silky-smooth route runner, and he's the guy quite honestly when they needed a throw, when they needed to pick up a first down, when they needed a play at Tennessee, that's where they went. It wasn't to the other guy, Patterson. He's the one who showed up consistently on tape. I think he's a better football player than Cordarelle Patterson.
Austin has enamored fans and scouts alike with his knack for making huge plays, but his size (not his durability, his size) has raised questions as to whether or not he can carve out a niche for himself in the league. A select few, like Wes Welker and Steve Smith, have found success in the NFL despite their size, but Austin's route-running ability pales in comparison to the two.
That said, Austin is a fantastic player who could be an explosive performer at the next level. That doesn't mean he's worth a first-round pick when there are questions as to how much he could actually do outside of a big play here and there.
Though the importance of the position is growing in the NFL, slot receivers are rarely taken in the first round unless they're far and away the best player available. For instance, Percy Harvin was selected 22nd overall in the 2009 NFL draft, but keep in mind that Harvin has 25 pounds on Austin, as well as more big-game experience and a more complete tape.
As for Patterson, the former Volunteer may be extremely gifted physically, but his running style lacks a good center of gravity, which is a valuable trait when evaluating ball-carriers.
For example, Ravens running back Ray Rice runs the football with a very concentrated base and can drive his legs upon impact, while Patterson struggles to shake arm tackles. Certainly, his jukes against second-team linebackers on kick coverage teams look nice, but he goes down easily and won't be able to simply outrun and out-juke NFL players.
Past that, his inability to be effective throughout the entire route tree renders him useless on a majority of snaps before even considering the biggest issue about him.
The receiver rose from the "JUCO" level to SEC stardom rather quickly, but his mind reportedly didn't make the transition. Per one NFL personnel man (via Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel), "Mentally, it's going to be a project. Running routes, he doesn't know how to do any of that stuff. You may have to keep it simple for him, but this is football. It's not building a super glider or anything."
An AFC personnel director, also speaking through McGinn anonymously, noted that "You've got to have some type of intelligence to pick up the system. Toward the end of the year, they started to go away from running Patterson down the field on routes and gave him the ball on reverses and screens, even as a halfback at times. That starts to put a question mark in your head. Why?"
"Well, there's reasons, and it's just not being as proficient with his route-running and not having the ability to make adjustments during the game."
Other receivers, like California's Keenan Allen, just haven't been able to solidify their status at the top of the class. Without one great, defining trait, Allen has struggled to maintain any sort of stock during the trying draft season due to a knee injury and off-the-field concerns dogging him throughout the process.
Hunter may struggle with drops and the like, but he has enough good attributes to warrant a high pick. He's proven his worth as a go-to, reliable pass-catching target when he was needed, so don't be surprised if he's the first receiver off of the board.
Though the odds are still good that a team falls in love with Tavon Austin (if the Rams, Bills and Chargers haven't already done so) and make him the first wideout off of the board, Hunter is making his case to go with a high selection as well.
Keep in mind Zierlein's latest report when draft night rolls around, for Hunter has the ability to be a difference-maker on the outside, and teams are starting to realize that.