Hardman totaled 77 yards on six catches, converting third downs on three occasions. He made the unit’s biggest play of the day: a 37-yard catch to set up a field goal. It was the receiver’s best game this season, two games into his return from the thumb injury that put him on Injured Reserve after Week 11.
With the postseason here, the Chiefs must maximize the wide receiver rotation. It’s possible that includes more of the only receiver with the team for both previous championship runs.
His Week 18 performance showed how he can help the Chiefs’ offense the rest of this season. Let’s dive in:
Playmaking from the slot
Aside from rookie Rashee Rice, the Chiefs have dealt with inconsistent play from the slot receivers. The increased opportunity for Richie James has yet to lead to anything, and Kadarius Toney has had his own problems on the field and with injuries.
Mecole Hardman did his best to earn more playoff PT in Wk18— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 9, 2024
Started with this Slant to convert a 3rd Down. Beats man coverage by showing outside release, then quickly swimming back inside to create separation pic.twitter.com/6VMLMfjB66
Hardman lined up in the slot in Los Angeles for 69% of his snaps, catching three passes that moved the chains. On this slant pattern, he does a good job of creating the necessary separation by initially selling an outside move. Once the defender reacts, a quick break back inside allows for an open completion over the middle.
Another slant from the Slot to convert 3rd down— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 9, 2024
Here, Mecole works across the LB's face to get into space. When the pass is a little behind, he still reels it in with Kendricks all over him.
Good work after the catch in the two-minute drill to get out of bounds pic.twitter.com/AFuzggZbSw
Later in the game, Hardman gets another first down from the slot. This time, he has to work across the face of a linebacker to get open. He does so by accelerating in front of him, but Hardman still secures the pass when the ball is behind, then shrugs off the linebacker to continue upfield.
Hardman’s play strength was a theme of the game — and something that Chiefs’ slot receivers have lacked at times this year.
On this crossing pattern, Mecole starts vertical before cutting across the field. That makes that chasing CB a step slower to the ball— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 9, 2024
Then he goes up with two hands, secures it through a tackle attempt and keeps going. Awesome play pic.twitter.com/PD5sgAdErk
On this play-action shot, Hardman runs a crossing pattern downfield. His initial release stems vertical, which helps give him separation from the trailing cornerback once he does work across the field. Hardman has to throttle down slightly at the catch point and go up with two hands, doing so seamlessly — then shaking off an effort to strip the ball.
It was a significant moment for Hardman, who has traditionally not shown the kind of strength he did multiple times in Week 18. It’s a trait the Chiefs’ receivers have struggled with this season, especially on downfield throws. If Hardman can add that improvement to his game-breaking speed, it makes sense that he is more involved down the field.
The one blemish from Mecole's game against LAC was this deep Over route— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 9, 2024
Safety anticipates the route, jumps it, which discourages 12 from running through it
Can't have this happen in a crucial moment though #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/9cxUqq0rUC
However, this play doesn’t help that case. Hardman runs a deep post, recognizing the safety’s beat on it as he breaks across the field. When he sees the safety beating him to the spot, he throttles down, but the ball is still thrown; it leads to an easy interception.
With the coverage playing the route well, it wasn’t quarterback Blaine Gabbert’s best idea to attempt the throw — but he is trying to give Hardman a chance at a big play; Hardman had already shown two impressive catches through traffic to this point.
It’s also worth noting that Hardman may have been adjusting his route to flatten out and run away from the safety. Either way, he should have more awareness of where the ball is when he’s active in his route.
The bottom line
The bulk of the Chiefs’ team got rest in Week 18, setting up for a fresh start to the postseason. However, someone like Mecole Hardman needed the playing time to get himself in a better position to contribute in the playoffs.
He wouldn’t be a perfect solution to the Chiefs’ receiver problems, but he has always had the big-play element that the other slot receivers on the team don’t. If he can combine that with the other skills he showed in Los Angeles, he could be a more crucial part of the offense than he has been all season.