One of the theories as to why the offense looked staler was the lack of a true “X” wide receiver. The Chiefs not only had to replace Sammy Watkins’ production but also his usage on third downs and as a short-to-intermediate threat. While Demarcus Robinson and Byron Pringle had seen the biggest jump in snap count since the injury, it was Mecole Hardman who was able to bust out a big game against New York.
Hardman had his best career game as a wide receiver. He finished with a career-high seven receptions, scored a touchdown and was only one yard shy (96) of his career-high. But more than production, this game was about how he was being utilized and how effective it was. The Chiefs found a way to get him involved in the passing game between the line of scrimmage and 20-plus yards downfield.
Let’s dig into this fantastic performance from Hardman and what it could mean for his development going forward.
Mecole Hardman | WR
One of the most significant sticking points in my evaluation of Hardman coming into the league was his lack of effectiveness. Some of that may have been team-driven, but it’s also about the trait and skills of the player.
Working through the 2019 Chiefs draft class & how they helped down the stretch— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) May 14, 2020
Mecole Hardman’s route chart for the three playoff games:
Black pen - no target; not open
Black pen + ⭕️ - no target, open
Blue pen + ❌ - target; no catch
Blue pen + ⭕️ - target, catch pic.twitter.com/FW0STOAb6T
This was a relatively small sample size from the 2019 season, but it was indicative of his usage throughout the year. Almost everything was vertical in nature and with a lot of soft breaks. That trend seemed to continue early on in 2020 but with even more usage behind the line of scrimmage (jet motion into flat route concepts).
Then the Jets came to town.
Hardman’s route chart vs the Jets— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 3, 2020
Black: route run, no target, generally covered (19)
Blue/purple: route run, no target, open (1)
Light blue: route run, catch (7)
Red: route run, drop (2) pic.twitter.com/daKH8pkujR
There are some drastic changes in this route chart.
Most of the routes still live in the vertical plane, but rather than forcing them all downfield, there were a lot more back-breaking routes to take advantage of the space his speed creates. A little more diversity in his alignment is also there.
This is a great sign for Chiefs fans, as this route tree is much more difficult to nail down and defend based on trends. Most importantly, he made plays and an impact as his use on the field varied.
Third and long, Hardman working on the outside on a Sticks concept.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 3, 2020
Does a great job threatening vertically and selling it. Works just past the sticks and then works away from the defender as he slides inside rather than straight back. Shorten the throw distance as much as poss pic.twitter.com/Jdgnjz6dK6
This is a third-and-14 conversion that Hardman is able to pick up on a deep comeback. This is where his usage becomes so important.
Up until this particular game, one could safely assume Hardman would be running a vertical route in this situation. Whether looking to catch the secondary playing the sticks too hard or just to clear space, Hardman normally would just run a Go route. Instead, we get Hardman on the deep comeback after running the cornerback off the spot, and it’s an easy pitch and catch.
The space his speed creates is why the play works, but some little things show great signs of development. As he’s pushing upfield off the line of scrimmage, Hardman drops his head and starts pumping his arms to indicate maximum effort to reach top speed — also known as, “I’m going deep.” As the cornerback sees and reacts to this, he gives up a ton of cushion because the trends say Hardman is indeed going deep.
Hardman then gets upright, sinks his hips and breaks the route off, which is already great. To make the play even better, he works back inside to shorten the throw from the quarterback but without giving up yardage to end up beyond the first-down marker. It’s a savvy way to create free separation both before the route break and after.
Another holdup with Hardman’s development and thus his usage on the field has been his limitations in terms of where he can line up pre-snap. Hardman is rarely put on the line of scrimmage unless protected by formation, and that makes it difficult to open up the entire route tree for him.
There were some signs of improvement against the Jets.
Mecole Hardman with arguably his best game for KC this past weekend thanks to showing some of the growth asked of him.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 2, 2020
Working off the LoS on this Slant-Flat RPO, the quick jab step off the LoS beats the CB aligned in press w/o disrupting Hardman. LB is late to slide, easy comp. pic.twitter.com/GwrFYZsmfu
Facing press coverage on this Slant-Flat RPO (run-pass option), Hardman is able to beat it quickly off the line of scrimmage with his footwork. The cornerback isn’t trying to jam the wide receiver but does need to disrupt this route a little bit and allow the linebacker to slide underneath.
The outside jab-step and quick break upfield made that impossible, leaving too much space for a linebacker having to read the mesh point on the RPO.
Hardman still wasn’t asked to line up and beat true press coverage often, and that will always be a hindrance on his snap count with Tyreek Hill on the team. It’s hard to get two different players off the line of scrimmage and avoid physical cornerback play at the same time. Hardman still has to work on his ability to handle that physicality if he wants to continue to grow, but more on that later.
In a rookie rewind series over the offseason, I talked about Hardman’s struggles in identifying coverages — and more specifically, leverage that defenders were trying to play. There is still plenty of work to be done, but this play was a great example of his understanding of the task ahead.
Another + sign, IDing this Solo coverage on the stick concept and then working to the soft spot of the zone.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 2, 2020
Hardman is able to work up to his mark but realizes on the curl that he's zoned off. Instead of just working back, he works over the zone to the soft spot behind the def. pic.twitter.com/VQFMVVKQmQ
Working this curl route, Hardman could try to fight in front of the defender to open up a passing lane, but he chooses not to do so. He could just settle in behind and outside him and let the quarterback move him out of the way, but he doesn’t.
Instead, Hardman takes the outside and passes the zone defender while still pushing vertical. This makes the defender think he’s passing Hardman off to another player and never sees that Hardman is curling in behind and around him to the inside. Hardman does a good job widening the break and working into a soft spot of the zone knowing the defender has no clue he’s slipped back inside.
It is a zone identification play that he wasn’t always making last year.
Still the bread and butter
We can’t talk about Hardman without mentioning what he does best: turn in big plays. His speed is dynamic, even when the Chiefs are having trouble freeing him up deep.
Even if unable to get him free vertically, Hardman's best trait/skill is being able to turn in dynamic plays.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 3, 2020
A simple jet motion pop-pass turned into a big score. The blocking is excellent but Hardman does a good job working off the blocks and making the final cut beating the S pic.twitter.com/0sRGy5G0B0
Where he can improve
This was a fantastic game to showcase his development, but Hardman’s game is still far from complete. As you can see in the route chart above, there are still only a few 45-degree angle breaks. And when he gets those calls, they are speed cuts with a rounded route. There is very little route working over the middle of the field, and there is a lot of protection from physical press coverage.
The area that could be the most beneficial in terms of Hardman’s improvement is handling physical play.
The two biggest areas of development are still in the route tree and handling physicality.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 3, 2020
Hardman did a good job running defenders off vertically and getting open on comebacks but when defenders were able to challenge w/ physicality, he struggled to get free pic.twitter.com/d7VcOJvlk6
Not every wide receiver needs to be super physical and a catch-point-dominant player, but there is a baseline of physicality you have to have if you’re going to be more than a schemed-up player. There are too many examples in which Hardman gets easily knocked off his route path and is unable to recover.
I do think this limits his ability to run some more in or out-breaking routes, and paired with moderately loose hips, it makes a lot of his hard breaks round.
On Hill's second TD, it looks like mirrored Nine routes but Hill just gets out faster then is able to work through the potential contact much better.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 3, 2020
Teams play to Hardman's vertical route tendencies so it's a hard ask to get behind them, but he was often easily "topped" vs NYJ pic.twitter.com/NCBCQtMyHa
Sometimes, the inability to handle physicality even impacts his ability to go deep.
The cornerback does a good job playing for the vertical concept, but Hardman is easily controlled by a single arm and then gets topped and squeezed toward the sideline. Compare that to how Hill is able to attack the leverage and handle the physicality, and it’s night and day.
The bottom line
Hardman was fantastic — outside of a pair of drops — against the Jets, and he did it in ways that he hadn’t up until this point.
It wasn’t just schemed touches for Hardman, but rather the Chiefs taking advantage of those prior tendencies. Kudos to Hardman for executing very well on them. He’s showing signs of improvement in little things that have probably kept him off the field: route running, coverage identification and alignment versatility. Hardman executed the adjustments extremely well — simply having him sit down as defenders gave cushion proved effective.
All that being said, there are still major steps to take to Hardman becoming a consistent No. 2 wide receiver, but this game gives that a glimmer of hope.