Wayne Hunter believes he started to learn the position of offensive lineman when he came to the Jets. That was at the end of 2007, nearly five years after he had been a high draft pick by the Seahawks organization.
“I was a third-round bust, basically,” the Jets offensive tackle said this week. “The way I’m playing now was what Seattle was hoping to get out of me. But I’m a late bloomer. Better late than never.”
Through seven years, Hunter’s NFL career has flickered at times: as a game-day inactive, a practice squad player and off a roster entirely, on the verge of searching for a 9-to-5 job in any ordinary field.
For the past three weeks, though — including today’s regular-season finale against the Bills — he has been an important substitute in the Jets’ starting line for right tackle Damien Woody. Hunter may need to carry that role into the postseason, as coach Rex Ryan said he’s “not sure” Woody will be available next week after having arthroscopic knee surgery last month.
For Hunter, 29, it has been another stage of his development in his time here, personal and professional, the latter tested by a recent slate of the league’s premier pass rushers: Houston’s Mario Williams, Miami’s Cameron Wake, Pittsburgh’s LaMarr Woodley and Chicago’s Julius Peppers.
“He’s really held his own,” offensive line coach Bill Callahan said. “Things didn’t go the way he wanted them to go against Miami. But aside from that, the last two weeks — knock on wood — he’s been really, really good.”
Coach Rex Ryan has called Hunter “the best backup tackle in football,” which was tested after Woody injured his MCL against the Texans in November. Hunter was called into spot duty that week and in the Miami loss Week 14 — when Wake sacked quarterback Mark Sanchez from Hunter’s side twice in the final series, a frustrating sequence for Hunter.