Justin Hunter let us in on a little secret the other day.
Asked about the difference between the Titans' new offense and the one they ran last year, Hunter said: "We're throwing it downfield a little more."
A couple of thoughts:
Maybe the Titans plan to throw the ball downfield with greater regularity because that's Ken Whisenhunt's philosophy.
Or maybe they'll throw downfield more because Hunter, now a second-year pro, gives them another serious playmaking option in the passing game.
Most likely, it's a combination of the two. The offense is evolving. Hunter is developing. It's a good match.
Frankly, the passing game needs some work. With Dowell Loggains running things as offensive coordinator last season, the Titans ranked in the middle of the pack in yards per completion. Their most dependable pass play was a short throw to Kendall Wright, who then would cut upfield and pick up extra yardage.
As for throwing downfield, it was hit or miss regardless of whether the quarterback was Jake Locker or Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Titans had trouble stretching the field. Hunter accounted for four of their 10 pass plays of 40 or more yards.
His talent is obvious. His speed is complemented by rare athletic ability. His leaping 34-yard touchdown catch to beat San Diego in the third game of his NFL career was one of the individual highlights of an otherwise pretty dull 2013 season for the Titans.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: If he avoids injury, Hunter will become the best wide receiver the Titans have had since the franchise landed on Tennessee turf. He has that kind of ability and upside.
With Whisenhunt's preference for three-wide receiver formations (that was the primary alignment in San Diego last season when Whisenhunt was offensive coordinator), Hunter should be on the field with Wright and Nate Washington a majority of the time.
"I'm ready to do whatever they want me to do," he said.
Hunter's rookie season was all over the map. His preseason was interrupted by minor injuries. He was slow to adjust to the pro game. Wide receivers coach Shawn Jefferson was constantly in his ear about bad routes and poor concentration.
And just when it appeared he had figured things out with impressive games against Oakland and Denver, Hunter was inactive in Week 15 after violating a team rule. He didn't catch a single ball in the last three games.
All told, it was a mixed bag. Hunter didn't have a reception in half the games. But he averaged a team-high 19.7 yards on his 18 catches. Only five receivers with double-digit catches averaged more yards.
|"When you're a rookie, it's kind of a blur," he said. "I think I learned a lot of things. Now I understand what I'm supposed to do."
Coaches often talk about the jump from the first season to the second, whether it's high school, college or pro. Hunter has a better feel of what is expected of him — on and off the field. After getting intermittently mauled in press coverage by aggressive cornerbacks as a rookie, Hunter made a commitment to getting bigger and stronger.
As a rookie, the Titans listed him at 203 pounds. It was wishful thinking.
"I was a toothpick," he said.
He hit the weight room with renewed focus in the offseason and has put on 15 pounds and now checks in at 207. His upper body is stronger and should help him get off press coverage, which was a problem last season.
"You can't get pushed around," he said. "You have to get off the line and into your pattern."
And it sounds like they'll be deeper patterns this season.