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How Mecole Hardman made a case for more postseason snaps

In his second game back from injury, the speed threat showed why he could be a factor in the playoffs.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

Of the reserve players that took the field for the Kansas City Chiefs in the 13-12 win over the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 18, wide receiver Mecole Hardman stood out the most on offense.

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.

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.

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.

Catch strength

Hardman’s play strength was a theme of the game — and something that Chiefs’ slot receivers have lacked at times this year.

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.

Route execution

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.

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