In the Rookie Rewind series, we’re taking a look at Kansas City Chiefs players after their first season in the league, focusing specifically their development — and areas that led to improvement or regression in their play. How did they improve from Week 1 — or even college — to the end of their first season? And what does that say about their future?
When the Chiefs traded up in the 2019 NFL Draft to select Mecole Hardman, the reviews around the league were mixed. Some felt his dynamic playmaking ability and speed were perfect for Andy Reid and the Chiefs offense. Others — like myself — weren’t convinced he did anything but run fast.
But when you fast forward to early last season — when Hardman was forced into major playing time, making big plays and helping the Chiefs win football games — the pick was looking great. Skip ahead to the latter half of the year — when production dropped off significantly — and he resembled more of the “athlete rather than football player” some feared.
But no matter how it’s broken up, by the end of the season Hardman had 26 catches, more than 500 yards and six touchdowns (plus another one rushing and one more on a kick return), which made him a very useful player during the team’s Super Bowl run.
But in this first edition of Rookie Rewind, we’ll focus on what Hardman did to get there.
Wide receiver Mecole Hardman
Early season briefing
Coming out of Georgia, Hardman was viewed as a raw wide receiver — but one with elite speed who was likely to start his career as more of a gimmick player. His lack of refinement as a route runner (and nuance to his route tree) was attributed to less than three full seasons playing the position — but his speed simply couldn’t be taught. So when Tyreek Hill was injured in Week 1, Hardman was forced into a bigger role in the Chiefs offense — and he responded very well.
During the next four weeks, Hardman broke passes of sixty yards or more three times — and added two touchdowns. Hill returned in Week 6. Even though Hardman’s targets and yardage dropped off, he was still able to find the end zone twice more before Week 10.
But the most astonishing thing was how Hardman was doing it. He hit some big plays over the top by utilizing his speed vertically, but the majority of his production was on short or intermediate routes that he turned into big plays after the catch. When inserted into a wide-open offense with great spacing downfield, his speed was creating a ton of space for him to run; his speed (and explosiveness) did the rest. So while his route tree wasn’t yet advanced, he was making a big impact in games.
Late in the season, Hardman still made big plays (specifically against the Tennessee Titans and New England Patriots) that went for long touchdowns. But he still wasn’t a consistent threat from play-to-play or game-to-game. So as the Chiefs marched into the playoffs, it was time to see where Hardman was — and if he could continue to impact games while on a lower target share.
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 simple chart of every route Hardman ran during the playoffs — and their results — shows that even by the end of the season, his route tree remained limited. Over half of his routes beyond the line of scrimmage were some form of Go or Over route; most of the remaining routes were simply spacing routes to get other players open.
Of course, this happens when you are a team’s fourth or fifth receiving option; your best ability is being utilized — and in Hardman’s case, that ability is his speed. The bigger concern is the lack of hard-breaking routes. The rounded breaks on the Curl and In routes aren’t just drawn just way; it’s how they were run. Hardman wasn’t often asked to change directions — and when he was, it wasn’t exactly crisp.
Not asked to make hardly any hard-break vs Houston, one of Harman's crisper breaks was this In-route (even if rounded out).— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) May 14, 2020
Skip release into a vertical push put the DB on his heels and opening up to go vertical.
Would like to have seen him drive out-leverage until the break pic.twitter.com/J8tYY0bQBi
As we see here, Hardman flashes some ability to flatten out of a break downfield — but the setup is perfect; the cornerback is removed from the picture. Even then, we still see some upfield drift. It’s hard to crush Hardman much on a play in which he doesn’t open up a throwing window for the quarterback — but it’s the details.
One of the details that Hardman showed had difficulty grasping down the stretch was understanding a cornerback’s leverage — and how to play against it.
Film notes:— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) May 14, 2020
The AFCC and SB matchups were poor games for Hardman to produce usage. Deep Overs, Go's, and Slice's were well defended.
More opps vs Houston but too reliant on his sped to win vertically (slipped as well) rather than trying to steal leverage or stack the DB. pic.twitter.com/8ZCCQiQ6HL
Hardman is faster than almost any defensive back he faces; on a vertical route, all he has to do is get them to hesitate (or take a false step) and he is gone. The problem is that right now, he doesn’t do it often enough.
On this play, he happily drifts into the sideline. This gives inside leverage to the cornerback, which allows him to stay on top of Hardman all the way downfield. The ball isn’t thrown to the best location, but the cornerback is in control for the entire play; at no point is he being pressured to do anything but run and control the space to the sideline.
Working out of the slot, Hardman isn't able to avoid the curl/flat defender on the release.Once redirected, the defender sees no flat presence and can sink under the corner.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) May 15, 2020
Threaten vertically/inside, get the flat defender to pass off before breaking on the corner. pic.twitter.com/QPIxRyYQKX
This misunderstanding carries over to zone coverage as well.
On this play, coming right off the line of scrimmage, Hardman shows his hand by trying to drift outside on his release. When he can’t fight through the cornerback’s shoulder, he’s forced back inside before he can break outside — except he never threatens to go anywhere but outside. The curl/flat defender not only redirects him, but also at no point thinks Hardman is going anywhere but the corner route.
Some of the stuff the Chiefs started doing off their 3x1, Y-Iso looks that teams sold out on started getting good looks.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) May 14, 2020
Bracket on Hill running what looks like an Over initially (and on Kelce backside) leaves no one deep and Hardman 1on1. Works through the traffic & gets deep pic.twitter.com/8JdWTyoEKU
But this isn’t to say it was all bad.
Here, Hardman shows a good knack for finding space vertically up the middle of the field. The play design helps him. He is able to run through traffic because there is no deep coverage; he is able to withstand early contact and still maintain his “faster than you” speed vertically.
Not a ton of press reps for Hardman throughout the season with his alignment off the LoS most of the time.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) May 19, 2020
Catches the CB getting antsy and off-balance pre-snap and the drop step allows him to slip under the CB's leverage. Fights through contact to get into his route stem pic.twitter.com/pEp7iNjN9d
Reps in which Hardman faced true press coverage were very few and far between. Here, the play strength (and Hardman’s acceleration) make it a high-risk, high-reward proposition to press him at the line of a scrimmage; a simple drop-step generates enough space to cross the face of the cornerback and then break away through contact.
Production in the SB wasn't there - not entirely his fault - but Chiefs did a good job utilizing Hardman's speed as a weapon on their deep over concepts.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) May 19, 2020
LB retreating off the snap to sell out on the Over, when Hardman sits down the window is there before the LB can close pic.twitter.com/PFDLLR3MsP
Another area where Hardman leaves the meat on the bone is being unable to utilize his speed on non-vertical routes. Other teams have to respect his speed, so he should be able to run any defender off of a spot, which should allow him sit there — or break on a flat line with plenty of space. Understanding that he’s more of a linear, stiffer player removes some potential to run a wider variety of routes — but simple comebacks like this play should be easy for him.
Despite taking almost five yards to flip his hips back to the quarterback, he’s got a good window just from running the defender upfield before doing so. When tasked with running a route like this, Hardman needs to threaten vertically before rounding off his break.
Expectations in 2020
To be sure, Hardman blew through anyone’s expectations for him in 2019 — but the way he went about it was about what we should have expected. Even though his role was limited, he was able to turn it into quality production early in the season. But as the year went on, he didn’t display a lot of development. Now that he has a year of experience in the NFL, the obvious expectation is to see growth as a route runner and an improvement in his football IQ.
The problem is that Sammy Watkins — the unquestioned number two wide receiver — and Demarcus Robinson have both returned to the team. Hardman’s biggest challenge will be to earn more time on the field so he can create a larger, more diverse role. Since Watkins and Robinson are bigger-bodied wideouts who excel on possession routes — and understand leverage in coverage and beating press — and Tyreek Hill is a superior deep threat and yards-after-catch receiver, it doesn’t leave a ton of room for Hardman.
If Hardman can improve some major nuances in his game — fluidity during hard breaks, reading leverage on specific coverages and utilizing his speed to always threaten vertically — he should become a more consistent player who can be used in more than one specific role.