Despite all the controversy surrounding him, the NFL announced on Friday that it would not suspend Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill in the coming season.
Because of the seriousness of the investigation and the confusion surrounding it, analysts, fans and anyone keeping up with the case were all under the impression that the team would be without Hill for at least a portion of the season. Even the Chiefs seemed to think they were going to miss the All-Pro wideout, which might have prompted them to draft speedster wide receiver Mecole Hardman in the second round.
But now that we know Hill will be playing this season, the expectations change drastically for Hardman — and other Chiefs players.
Whether it’s a fair or not, Hardman was compared to Tyreek Hill from the moment he was drafted. His 4.2 40-time at the combine, ability in the return game and overall game-breaking speed made comparisons to Hill low-hanging fruit. Pile on the uncertainty surrounding Hill, and you get sky-high expectations for a second-round pick.
With Friday’s NFL statement, those expectations go out the window.
Now, Hardman can train and practice without the pressure of replacing an All-Pro receiver. He no longer needs to contribute right away to a team trying to win a Super Bowl. The Chiefs have their clear-cut top three receivers (Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins) meaning there’s no urgency for Hardman to find his way into a starting spot early. He can sit back and learn Andy Reid’s offense at his own pace — which should be better for his growth as a player.
With the kind of coverage the top three guys will demand on the field, there is a possibility Hardman will find room to operate and thrive in the offense this year. But with the minimal touches he is likely to have, there’s no reason to keep expectations as high as they were when he was drafted.
While fans may not expect Watkins to obtain the production he would have gotten without Hill on the roster, there is more pressure for Watkins to live up to his contract.
Before the NFL’s decision, it was pretty obvious that Watkins was going to get more touches than he did last year. He was clearly going to be the best wide receiver on the team — and possibly the best receiving option overall behind Kelce, who is recovering from offseason ankle surgery.
Yes... people may have been expecting his production to get a boost, but there wasn’t the pressure of having to earn a spot on a team deep at his position. If the Chiefs decided to get rid of Hill, there would have been no other obvious premier threat on the outside, forcing them to either hope Hardman panned out or extend Watkins to give Mahomes the weapons he’d need.
Now, Watkins has to stand out this year if he wants to remain on the team — let alone get a big contract. With Hill’s return, Watkins once again becomes the third receiving option on offense, making him much more vulnerable to being replaced by any of the young pass-catchers on the team. It’s much easier to justify paying your best receiver big money than it is a third or fourth option.
The Chiefs are going to need a good reason to keep Watkins around with the kind of money they’re paying him, giving him higher expectations than a lot of other guys on the depth chart.
Not many people thought Mahomes was going to repeat his MVP performance from last year — with or without his number one wide receiver. But expectations are always high for a defending league MVP — and when Hill got the okay to play this upcoming season, they got even higher.
It’s hard to have the greatest expectations for a quarterback that loses his best wide receiver after a historic season. But now that we know Mahomes will have his favorite wide receiver available, there is no excuse for the third-year QB not to play great.
Even when Hill’s fate was still up in the air, the Chiefs had 6-1 odds to win the Super Bowl, so there’s no doubt that they are expected to contend with him in the lineup. With Hill in it, the Chiefs’ wide receiver corps is that much deeper — which has prompted people to begin calling it The Legion of Zoom.
With weapons like that, it’s hard not to be hopeful that Mahomes will once again put up astronomical numbers.