The Kansas City Chiefs will play the Baltimore Ravens for their Week 2 game in M&T Bank Stadium in Maryland on Sunday. A familiar face will be on the other sideline: wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who donned a Ravens jersey in the offseason after finishing a three-year stint as Kansas City’s nominal third receiving option.
Watkins’ absence created a need for a player to fulfill his role as the “X” receiver in head coach Andy Reid’s offense — a big-bodied wideout who could win at the catch point. But as the season began, no player was the clear-cut candidate to take that role.
The team did have several wide receivers available behind No. 1 wideout Tyreek Hill; players like Demarcus Robinson, Mecole Hardman, Byron Pringle and Marcus Kemp could conceivably satisfy the team’s need in a sort of X-receiver-by-committee approach.
But the Week 1 game against the Cleveland Browns made it appear that the Chiefs instead intended to simply give more targets to Hill and tight end Travis Kelce — the two receivers who have carried the bulk of the load in the last several seasons. There were 34 targets spread among eight Kansas City players in the season opener, and Hill and Kelce accounted for 22 of them. That’s 65% — compared to the 47% they shared in all of 2020, not to mention the leaguewide average of 40% for each team’s top two receiving targets.
On Wednesday, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes did his best to allay many fans' concerns: that the team has no viable receiving options behind Kelce and Hill. Mahomes said that Sunday’s high percentage had more to do with the specific way the Browns were defending the Kansas City passing game.
“To me, it’s just kind of going through the reads of the game and seeing what the defense kind of gives you,” he told reporters. “This last week, they kind of left the middle of the field a little bit open, so I was able to hit Tyreek and Trav over the middle a lot.”
Some data released this week by Next Gen Stats seems to bear this out. It said that 16 of Mahomes’ 34 pass attempts were to receivers lined up in the slot — and that 13 of them were completed for 212 yards and three touchdowns. Hill and Kelce accounted for 11 of those receptions.
“I have full confidence in everybody who’s on that football field,” insisted Mahomes. “I mean, we have guys that can make plays everywhere. This last week, Trav and Tyreek made the plays. But I’m sure that throughout the entire season — and what we’ve seen in our past — is that we have guys like Mecole Hardman, Demarcus Robinson and Byron Pringle who can make the big play happen at any moment. I have full confidence in that.”
On Friday, Hardman spoke to reporters in a Zoom conference call. He made it clear that from his perspective, nothing is wrong.
“I mean, it’s part of playing a role, you know?” he said. “Just being active at all times on the field, running a great route, being in the spot that you need to be in — because you never know when the ball is going to come your way.”
Reminded that he only had three catches in Sunday’s game, Hardman bristled at the idea that it represented a slight.
“I did my job, man,” he declared. “That’s all you can ask for. Three targets? Three catches.
“I think people have to realize that we’ve got the best tight end in the league and the best receiver in the league. Who am I to try to take targets away from those guys? That’s just selfish, honestly.”
Later in the day, he expanded that point on social media in a now-deleted tweet.
“Also stop comparing me to WRs in my class,” wrote Hardman on his official account. “They are the #1 option on their team! And none of them can come to this team and be a 1st or 2nd option! I wonder about people sometimes.”
From Hardman’s perspective, his job is simply to help his team win football games — and if opposing teams make passes to Kelce and Hill the easiest plays for Mahomes to make... well, then that’s what Mahomes should do.
“As long as you know we’re winning and we’re doing everything we’ve got to do, I have no problem with anything,” declared Hardman. “By all means, throw it to them — because if [defenses] can’t guard them? Shit. Give ‘em the ball.”
That could get to be a problem should either of the team’s top two receiving options suffer a serious injury — or if defenses can consistently find a way to defend against both of them simultaneously. But as long as neither one of those things happen, the Chiefs offense can continue to roll.