Summary: In the beginning of his collegiate career, Hunter looked like he had the physical talent to be a prolific receiver. Hunter seemed to possess an extremely rare skill set with the speed of a burner wide out and the size of a big possession receiver.
Hunter had 16 receptions for 403 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman in 2010. He looked poised for a massive 2011 season and started out the year with 16 receptions for 302 yards and two scores in the first two games. However against Florida, on a routine 12-yard catch early in the third game, Hunter went down with a torn ACL following a leaping reception. It was a surprising injury as he did not take a shot to the knee, or have another player fall into his leg in the manner that typically causes knee ligament tears.
Hunter started out slowly this year. He didn't have the same explosiveness or deep speed. Hunter was held to less than 80 yards early in the season by multiple opponents including North Carolina State, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State and Alabama. Mississippi State cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay kept Hunter from getting separation and held him to two receptions for 41 yards. It was a disappointing performance for the junior, but he played much better after that.
Late this season, Hunter looked like he was gradually regaining more speed and explosiveness. Hunter had a huge day against Missouri. He made some great receptions on high passes and totaled 141 yards and a score on nine receptions. Hunter had nine catches for 181 yards and three touchdowns the week before against Troy after a solid showing against South Carolina. He finished the season with 73 receptions for 1,083 yards and nine touchdowns. There was no need for Hunter to take another injury risk, and the junior has announced that he will enter the 2013 NFL Draft.
Another thing that hurt Hunter's explosive plays in 2012 was a switch in his role in the offensive scheme. Early in his collegiate career, he was playing the X (split end) receiver. That position sent him downfield more often. IHunter was moved to the Z (flanker) receiver this year as Tennessee had Cordarrelle Patterson playing X.
The Z receiver runs more routes in the short to intermediate part of the field. The Z is also asked to take on more dirty work like blocking. The coaches trusted Hunter more than Patterson in that role, and it did make Hunter more versatile for the NFL.
Hunter's 40-yard dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine will be massively important to his draft status. He needs to show that he is continuing to recover the elite explosiveness he had before the knee injury.
The kind of pro that Hunter will become all comes down to him regaining his pre-injury form. If he is that fast again, he could be a big-time play-maker and a constant source of mismatches. Hunteer will be a deep threat and a vertical receiver who can make huge splash plays. If he doesn't regain that speed, he'll be more of a possession receiver in the NFL. Hunter would be be a solid receiver, but not great.
Player Comparison: Randy Moss/Malcom Floyd. Prior to his knee injury, Hunter's playing style looked like Moss: a very tall receiver with deep speed to burn secondaries running straight down the field. Obviously, Hunter is extremely unlikely to be anywhere close to as good as Moss, but if he can come all the way back to his former speed and explosiveness, he could once again resemble the future Hall of Famer.
If Hunter doesn't regain that form, he could be a receiver similar to Floyd. Floyd (6-5, 225) is heavier, but he has been a quality pro who can operate in different levels of the defense. In the NFL, Hunter could easily turn into a receiver in the mold of Floyd.
NFL Matches: Miami, St. Louis, Minnesota, New York Jets, New England, San Francisco, Houston
The Dolphins have the worst receiving corps in the NFL and have to acquire multiple upgrades this offseason. Using a high draft pick on Hunter would make a lot of sense. The Rams may also continue their pursuit of a No. 1 receiver and could consider him with one of their first-round picks.
Minnesota needs a true No. 1 receiver to work with Christian Ponder. A big receiver who can make tough catches in traffic would be a good aide to the young signal-caller.
The Jets could consider a wide receiver because they really need to upgrade the talent on their offense, but with other more pressing needs, New York seems more likely to target a receiver on the second day of the 2013 NFL Draft.
New England could target a receiver, too. The Patriots need some young talent at the position, and if Hunter falls, they would be a nice fit for him. The 49ers have tried a number of veteran receivers, but could use more long-term starting-caliber wide outs.
Houston could use a heir apparent to Andre Johnson. Hunter's size and speed would provide some continuity for the Texans' offense.