Can Mecole Hardman Replace Tyreek Hill?

Can Mecole Hardman Replace Tyreek Hill?

With Tyreek Hill’s future in Kansas City in question amidst allegations of child abuse, the Chiefs traded the 61stand 167thpicks in the draft to move up to pick 56. With that selection, they drafted speedy receiver Mecole Hardman out of Georgia, and speculation immediately began about his addition to the league’s number one offense.

But can he replace Hill? Will Hill even miss time? There is inherent risk associated with banking on any rookie receiver, and the comparisons between Hardman and Hill athletically and stylistically are limited to speed and return skills. Hill was primarily a running back in college and has been learning the receiver position as a pro, while Hardman was a two-year starter at receiver for Georgia and needs to work on his route-running. So, let’s take a look at the different factors associated with Hardman’s value, his potential to replace Hill and his opportunity as a speedy rookie catching passes from Patrick Mahomes.

The Hill Replacement Factor

Tyreek Hill might miss time. He might go to jail. He might get released from the Chiefs. Or he may not be disciplined at all. The Kansas City Star reported just this past week “prosecutors are no longer actively working the criminal case.” That doesn’t alleviate him from league discipline, but the NFL isn’t exactly known for consistency in how punishment is doled out. All the Hardman love may be for naught in the end if Hill suits up for 16 games next year.

That being said, Hardman does have a tremendous amount of upside if Hill does miss time. Of the players expected to make the final 53-player roster in September, Hardman is the most similar in what he brings to the team. He was a dynamite return specialist in college, particularly on punt returns. Hill was the primary punt returner for the Chiefs last season. Hardman is also extremely fast – he ran a 4.33-second 40-yard-dash at the combine. He should have no problem getting downfield in a hurry to catch one of Mahomes’ bombs. He’s shifty enough to gain yards after the catch and can blow by single coverage, making him a nice fit to replace Hill in the lineup.

So He’s Fast…

Hardman is fast. Really fast. But is that enough to replace someone like Tyreek Hill? Is it enough to just blow by everyone? Clearly not, or all the players running sub-4.4-second 40’s would be All-Pro players like Hill. In fact, of all the WRs with 40 times of 4.35 seconds or faster over the past 10 years, only two became Pro Bowlers and only six could be considered starting-caliber players – depending on how you feel about Curtis Samuel. Here’s a list:

Wide Receivers with Combine 40 Times of 4.35 Seconds or Better
Year Drafted Player Name College Combine 40 Time Round Drafted Rookie Receptions Rookie Receiving Yards Rookie Receiving TDs
2018 D.J. Chark LSU 4.34 2 14 174 0
2017 John Ross Washington 4.22 1 0 0 0
2017 Curtis Samuel Ohio St. 4.31 2 15 115 0
2016 Will Fuller Notre Dame 4.32 1 47 635 2
2015 J.J. Nelson Alabama-Birmingham 4.28 5 11 299 2
2015 Phillip Dorsett Miami 4.33 1 18 225 1
2015 Kevin White West Virginia 4.35 1 19 187 0
2015 Chris Conley Georgia 4.35 3 17 199 1
2014 Dri Archer Kent State 4.26 3 7 23 0
2014 Brandin Cooks Oregon State 4.33 1 53 550 3
2014 John Brown Pittsburg State 4.34 3 48 696 5
2013 Marquise Goodwin Texas 4.27 3 17 283 3
2013 Ryan Swope Texas A&M 4.34 6 0 0 0
2013 Tavon Austin West Virginia 4.34 1 40 418 4
2012 Travis Benjamin Miami 4.31 4 18 298 2
2012 T.Y. Hilton Florida International 4.34 3 50 861 7
2012 T.J. Graham N.C. State 4.34 3 31 322 1
2012 Chris Givens Wake Forest 4.35 4 42 698 3
2011 Clyde Gates Abilene Christian 4.31 4 2 19 0
2011 Ricardo Lockette Fort Valley State 4.34 UFA 2 105 1
2011 Julio Jones Alabama 4.34 1 54 959 8
2011 Aldrick Robinson Southern Methodist 4.35 6 11 237 3
2010 Jacoby Ford Clemson 4.28 4 25 470 2
2010 Trindon Holliday LSU 4.34 6 0 0 0

Not only were there only two Pro Bowlers in the bunch (Julio Jones and T.Y. Hilton), none of them had over 1,000 yards receiving in their rookie seasons. This certainly doesn’t suggest that a great 40 time is a bad thing or even that it isn’t a huge positive for Hardman’s potential as a pro. However, it does indicate there’s more to it than that, which is evident looking at the wide variety of draft capital invested in these super-sonic pass catchers.

Slightly disturbing is the presence of Chris Conley on this chart, another former Georgia Bulldog who just left the Chiefs as a free agent to join the Jaguars. Conley never really put it together as a starter in Kansas City, despite ample opportunity. Here’s how Conley and Hardman compare:

Hardman and Conley Comparison
Comparison Chris Conley Mecole Hardman
Combine 40 Time 4.35 4.33
College Receptions 117 60
College Receiving Yards 1938 961
College Receiving Touchdowns 20 11
Final College Season Receptions 36 35
Final College Season Receiving Yards 657 543
Final College Season Receiving Touchdowns 8 7

Sheesh. Not a good sign.

What About Draft Position?

Hardman was drafted high, and the Chiefs used two picks to get him. That tends to bode well in many data models, as draft capital often translates into more opportunities as a pro. Still, Kevin Zatloukal’s 3-Year Model for NFL Rookie WR Success gives “Hardman only about a 1-in-5 chance of success.” However, Kevin adds that he has a great opportunity if Hill misses time, and when I asked him about Hardman, he credited the speedy rookie with good draft capital and noted he’s super young – just turned 21. 

While he wasn’t expected to be drafted as highly as he was, the fact that a team was willing to invest a second-round pick in him, and to trade up at that, bodes well for his potential. The Chiefs are likely to give him every opportunity to find a role and earn snaps, a luxury not afforded to later-round picks. Draft position doesn’t always mean a player is going to succeed, but it definitely helps with opportunity and shows the way a team values the talent they bring to the game.

What Kind of Opportunity?

Let’s say Hill misses time. Let’s assume draft position does mean he’ll get his shot. What kind of shot are we talking about? Herein lies the buzz surrounding Hardman’s potential. The Chiefs scored more points than any other team last year, and Hill was the leading fantasy receiver (depending on the scoring format). Hill had 137 targets last season, but Conley also had 52 balls thrown his way. If Hardman can get even half of those potentially vacated targets, he’ll be vying for offensive rookie of the year honors. 

While Travis Kelce will continue to get a ton of targets and Sammy Watkins should benefit if Hill misses time, those two already combined for 205 targets last year, and it’s hard to imagine too much additional work headed their way. There’s going to have to be someone else who steps up in the place of Hill, and Hardman seems like the most likely option. There are more vacated targets left from Kareem Hunt, but I would expect those to go to Damien Williams

Expect Hardman to win the return job. In addition to his success as a punt returner, he averaged 24.3 yards per kick return over his college career. The Chiefs were already looking to alleviate some of the burden off Hill so he could focus more on offense, so a simple return specialist and sub-package offensive weapon seems like the floor for Hardman’s potential. 

Nate Taylor recently noted Hardman’s potential to play the slot and on gadget plays, something his speed and shiftiness would make him an ideal fit for, even with Hill in the lineup.

Hardman will take advantage of the opportunity he gets if he can be more consistent with his hands and learn to use his body positioning to wall off defenders and make contested catches. He also needs to develop as a route-runner and become more than just a speed demon. 

Can Hardman Develop?

So far so good if you listen to the word coming out of camp. Jake Rowe of 247sports.com reported Chiefs WRs coach Greg Lewis said: “(Hardman’s) in here early every day trying to find the ins and outs to help himself become better as a professional football player.” 

Also, there’s this:

And some playful banter with your star quarterback is always a good sign:

This is the time of year when every little nugget or soundbite gets reported as a revelation for the upcoming season. The summer is prime time for coach speak and for veterans to say things like “I haven’t felt this good since I was a rookie.” So, all this may mean nothing. However, it’s definitely better to hear these things than to not hear these things, given the development needs for Hardman to become a star in the NFL.

Bottom Line

When all is said and done, Hardman is ultimately a boom-bust option. However, his price tag in most fantasy leagues is so low there’s hardly any risk, mitigating the “bust” part of the equation. In a couple of dynasty rookie drafts, I’ve grabbed him in the second round, which is about right for a long-term receiver. In re-draft leagues, his ADP is currently in the 17thround of 12-team formats. John Paulsen currently has him ranked 83rd among fantasy receivers in PPR league formats. With such little investment, he’s well worth the risk of Hill returning. I’m drafting him in the later rounds of all leagues. With the talent of Patrick Mahomes, the questionable availability of Hill and the offensive prowess of Head Coach Andy Reid, Hardman is the type of player who could be a league-winner. 

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