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Hightower picks Patriots; Steelers sign former Titans receiver

Joe Rutter
| Wednesday, March 15, 2017, 12:15 p.m.
Titans receiver Justin Hunter beats Steelers cornerback William Gay for a big play during the third quarter Monday, Nov. 17, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Titans receiver Justin Hunter beats Steelers cornerback William Gay for a big play during the third quarter Monday, Nov. 17, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn.

The Steelers finally struck a deal with an outside free agent Wednesday. It just wasn't with the big-money, high-profile player fans anticipated.

On a day when premium inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower re-signed with the New England Patriots, the Steelers addressed wide receiver depth when they agreed to a one-year contract with former Tennessee Titans second-round draft pick Justin Hunter.

A day after being courted by the Steelers for over six hours at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, Hightower made the unsurprising move of returning to his former team. Hightower's four-year contract with the Patriots is worth a reported $43.5 million, with $19 million guaranteed.

Hightower chose the Patriots after overtures from the Steelers and New York Jets. He turned down a reported $10 million-a-year deal from the Patriots before the season and became a free agent when New England declined to make him their franchise player.

Hightower became the third free agent to meet with the Steelers, yet sign elsewhere. They did, however, snag the only other player brought in for a visit, Hunter, who was at the team facility Monday.

Hunter was the 34th overall player selected in the 2013 draft. But he underachieved in three years with the Titans and was cut before the 2016 season.

Miami signed Hunter but cut him after one game. He traveled to Buffalo, where he spent the rest of the season. In 12 games with the Bills that included five starts, Hunter had 10 catches for 189 yards and four touchdowns. He averaged 18.9 yards per reception.

He has 78 receptions for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns in his career.

Hunter wrote on his verified Twitter account: “The story isn't finished just yet! #SteelersNation.”

Hunter will fill the roster spot of Markus Wheaton, who signed a two-year deal with the Chicago Bears at the outset of free agency.

Hunter also will provide depth in case the NFL does not reinstate wide receiver Martavis Bryant. Bryant's case is expected to be heard by commissioner Roger Goodell, with a decision possibly to come by the end of the month.

In addition to All-Pro Antonio Brown, the Steelers also have Eli Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Sammie Coates, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers on the roster. The Steelers also could pursue a wide receiver in the April draft.

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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