Pull up statistics for NFL-wide receiving yards, and many of the names appearing in the top 10 are no surprise. New Orleans’ Michael Thomas, Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans and Dallas’ Amari Cooper — just to name a few.
Had he played a whole season, Tyreek Hill might be there, but he missed a quarter of it — Weeks 2 to 5 — with a clavicle injury. And though unplanned, that time off meant early opportunity for rookie Mecole Hardman.
You won’t find Hardman among the top names in the NFL-wide receiving data. That is, unless you dig. With 20.8 yards per reception, Hardman is second in the league for production when he has the ball in his hands. Among 134 receivers in the NFL with more than 15 targets, Hardman ranks 30th in yards per route run (Byron Pringle ranks eighth, but we’ll save that article for another day).
Of course, stats never tell the whole story. Our own in-house analytics guru, Ethan Douglas, would tell you that. It’s entirely possible (and downright probable) that head coach Andy Reid’s play design for Hardman has much to do with his success in limited touches.
But it cannot be denied that less than 15 snaps against the New England Patriots (one of which included this touchdown score) is low for a player who has proven to be capable of so much: 24 catches for 498 yards and six touchdowns — three of which put the Chiefs ahead in games where they never trailed again.
”I think he has improved,” said head coach Andy Reid when asked about Hardman’s progress earlier this week. “I think every week he has improved. You are never sure, when a rookie comes in, what exactly you’re going to get. You think you know, but you really don’t until they get into your system and work. How do they handle the pressure of a quarterback’s demands and the other players around him?”
The Chiefs were so high on Hardman this offseason, they traded up to select him out of Georgia with their top selection — No. 56 overall in the second round.
But college football was one thing for the 21-year-old. As he soon found out (quite publicly) from Patrick Mahomes, you need more than speed in the NFL. Only Hardman’s work ethic could get him the respect (and playing time) he knew he deserved.
“I always knew how to work — I have a good work ethic,” said Hardman on Friday. “It’s just more of what they wanted out of me — how the offense flowed and how the offense went, and everything like that. So it came to more like, ‘You can’t take plays off. Every play’s important, you got to run full speed, even when you’re tired. Run, and get yourself in shape,’ like that.
“So when I first got here, I was getting tired and taking plays off, but I learned how to work, I learned the system, I got more confident in the plays. When training camp got here, it was a struggle at the beginning. At the end, I started catching on to it. So I guess the more — I knew the work it took to be where I needed to be at.”
Hardman said he confided in Hill and Sammy Watkins, who shared they weren’t necessarily ready when they arrived in Kansas City, either. They told Hardman to keep working, which motivated him and shifted his attitude.
“Like OK,” said Hardman of that time. “I’m not the only one that went through this. So they went through it, I can go through it and get through it.”
And that attitude adjustment made his head coach happy.
“You kind of check the ego at the door,” said Reid of the transition from college football player to NFL pro. “He has learned and he has worked. I think he has learned that part, just how hard you have to work here to get to where you get time to play. Like I said, he has checked the ego at the door, and he has worked his tail off to be able to be as productive as he is. The quarterback trusts him. If the quarterback doesn’t like you, you’re not going to get that ball.”
The media laughed — but it could not be more true.
“He’s grown every single week,” said Mahomes of Hardman. “That’s what you ask for in a rookie. This is a hard offense to learn and whenever he’s getting his opportunities, he’s making the most of it. He’s still getting better each and every week. Obviously, he’s very talented and can make plays when he gets the ball in his hands and we’re going to keep utilizing him in the best way possible and hopefully he can keep scoring touchdowns.”
That seems to happen — whether it be by design in the backfield or when he breaks free from a defender — whenever he has a few steps in front of him.
He is similar in that sense to what we saw in Hill as a rookie — and that is why the Chiefs like Hardman so much as their punt returner and home-run threat. This week, special teams coordinator Dave Toub explained how teams have begun to kick the ball out of bounds more. Hardman believes he has it in him to one day be the greatest punt returner of all time.
And when the current and ex-punt returner are on the field at the same time?
Well, good luck.
Tyreek Hill’s presence helps make this play. His lightning quick feet and releas force cushion for both he and Hardman. Easy first down to convert with that amount of cushion. #JacobsEyeInTheSky #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/DbvGBkfdrE— Nick Jacobs (@Jacobs71) October 15, 2019
“It’s hard,” said Broncos head coach Vic Fangio during his conference call with the Kansas City media this week. “Those guys (Hardman and Hill) are extremely, extremely fast. It almost looks sometimes when you’re watching the tape like it’s on fast forward. They get down the field faster than any two guys in the league, and consequently, they run a lot of similar routes that other teams do, but their at deeper levels because of the speed they have, and the speed always puts a little hesitance into the defense backs’ mind. They know how fast they are.”
So Hardman is fast. He is dynamic. He has made huge strides since training camp. So why not use the rookie more?
The Chiefs believe it’s just a matter of the depth chart.
“Let’s talk about this first,” said offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. “There’s Tyreek Hill, OK. And there’s also Sammy Watkins. And you got D-Rob (Demarcus Robinson), who is doing a hell of a job. And I mean, we have talent, you know? And this is not a knock on Mecole Hardman, you know? We just have guys, who can all make plays, OK? And I think the best thing that has happened to them is that these guys have accepted him as one of them, so they’re raising him and grooming him.”
“Now do not get me wrong — Mecole has stepped up. He’s making the most of every opportunity that is being presented to him. But also, too. He appreciates those opportunities because of the players that he’s with. He understands the value of making it happen when being given that chance to excel on the field.”
Whether or not he gets that opportunity remains to be seen, and the reality is those snaps would eat into the playing time of Robinson or Watkins.
Those are decisions Hardman can’t control. And he is fine with that.
“I play my role,” said Hardman. “I do what I got to do. And just take advantage of every time the ball comes to me. I learned that at Georgia because we ran the ball a lot at Georgia. We throw it a lot here, but at Georgia, I learned every time you get the ball to take advantage, and I kind of keep that mindset here.”
Does Mecole Hardman need more playing time?
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