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How Mecole Hardman’s role can expand in 2022’s Chiefs offense

Ron Kopp’s summer series rolls on with a look at how the Kansas City’s most experienced wide receiver can step up.

New York Giants v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

For the first time in the Patrick Mahomes era, the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense will not feature what has been the league’s most dangerous, big-play threat: wide receiver Tyreek Hill. For this reason, the 2022 season won’t look quite the same.

So in this summer series — The Reid Remix — we’ll use statistics, film and quotes we’ve heard this offseason to preview how different aspects of the unit could look in the coming season.

We started by explaining the basic ways that Hill’s absence can change the Chiefs’ play-calling tendencies. This time, we’ll look into how wide receiver Mecole Hardman’s role could change.

Hardman’s prior role

Compared to Hill, Hardman’s use has been limited throughout his career. While Hill consistently played 85-90% of the offense’s snaps, Hardman would have greater variance; depending on the game, his use could range from 30% to 70% of the snaps.

But this condensed playing time was also coupled with efficient production — specifically down the stretch of the 2021 season.

With defenses constantly trying to contain Hill (and other vertically explosive plays from other receivers), the Chiefs maximized Hardman’s speed horizontally. Whether or not he was getting the ball, he was consistently used on pre-snap motions in which he ran jet-sweep actions. The Chiefs also used him for quick throws to the outside (or on shallow crossing routes) to stress opposing defense sideline-to-sideline rather than end-zone-to-end-zone.

Hardman’s target share reflects that kind of usage: Per PFF, 74% of his 2021 targets came within nine yards of the line of scrimmage. In fact, only three other NFL players had more targets behind the line of scrimmage — and on those plays, Hardman averaged 12 yards per reception.

Despite his speed, Hardman has seldom been targeted for deep passes; in 2021, he had only five receptions that were 20 or more yards downfield. But he still played a major role in finding the team bigger opportunities in the passing game. Many times, the Chiefs would deploy him in a way to open up a window for Hill or tight end Travis Kelce, using Hradman’s long speed to push safeties deep, keeping them away from a play’s actual progression.

What we’ve seen from Hardman without Hill

Hardman has only rarely been on the field without Hill. But there was a stretch of games at the very beginning of Hardman’s rookie season in which he caught 12 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns; it’s still the most productive stretch of his career.

When he has the primary route in a vertical concept, Hardman’s speed is his biggest strength.

On this play from Week 2 of his rookie season, the Chiefs throw him right into the headlining route on third-and-20. Hill has scored a time or two on this corner-post route out of the slot. It’s designed to be the primary look — and here, Hardman’s top speed makes it work perfectly.

Even in 2021’s limited sample size, Hardman found success with double-move routes. His speed makes any hesitation from a defender a devastating error — so even a lackluster head fake can earn him good separation.

But it’s not just the big-play, primary routes that will be added to Hardman’s plate. He will also be utilized more often in intermediate, stationary routes that rely on him and the quarterback to find open throwing windows between zone defenders.

On this play from 2019’s Week 5 game (in which Hill was again absent), Hardman shows a strong performance during just that kind of a rep.

Still, this isn't something the Chiefs have done with him since then.

How Hardman can improve for 2022

After taking a close look at Hardman and his 2021 season, it’s notable that the Chiefs have already utilized him in many of the ways they used Hill — just not nearly as often.

One of the best parts of the Mahomes-to-Hill combination was the chemistry they appeared to have. While there will always be miscommunications, they just didn’t show up very often between Mahomes and Hill. That’s something that Hardman still needs to work out.

One specific place where the duo will need work is properly reading the back-side safety on a deep post like the two shown here. In these examples, the route puts the safety in a bind, giving Hardman two paths: one in front of the defender’s face towards the sideline and another towards the back of the end zone.

On the first play, Hardman doesn’t run through the route, failing to truly commit to either path. In the second, Hardman commits to crossing the safety’s face — but the ball is thrown as if he’s going deep. While I don’t pretend to know the reads, I believe both of these incompletions can be credited to Hardman’s lack of “feel” on these routes. It’s something that he and Mahomes need to work out together.

I also see a need for Hardman to play in a more refined way: hitting the landmarks the quarterback expects and taking the right angles.

On this play, Hardman’s dig route drifts too far upfield — making the throw go too far upfield. The safety is then able to get there quickly and break up the pass.

In general, Hardman lacks the ability to play through contact — which has not made him a desirable target for contested-catch situations.

The bottom line

Hardman is the Chiefs’ most experienced wide receiver. With Hill gone, I believe that will translate to an increase in his playing time. In the plays where the Chiefs take advantage of his speed horizontally, his usage may not change much. But what will likely change is how often he’s used as the primary receiver in bigger passing concepts — and the variety of routes he’ll be asked to run.

Those plays can come down to how much the quarterback and receiver are on the same page — which is an area that needs improvement. Without it, we may not see these big plays be completed at as high a rate as we’ve seen — and now that opponents are limiting the number of chances for these plays, this could be significant.

This all leads to Hardman being one of the biggest X-factors in the Chiefs’ 2022 offense. More than many other players, the unit’s success will be tied to his performance.

In future editions of The Reid Remix, we’ll dive into other aspects of Kansas City’s 2022 offense.

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