Chiefs’ Mecole Hardman can be much more than a gadget receiver in 2022

There are some misconceptions about Kansas City Chiefs WR Mecole Hardman heading into the 2022 NFL season.

One of the most frequent misconceptions is the idea that Hardman only thrives as a gadget receiver. That is to say that he needs manufactured touches, often behind the line of scrimmage, in order to have success in Andy Reid’s offense. Things like screen passes, reverses and so on.

There is no denying this specific role has been a large part of his game over the past three seasons. Last year, he even excelled at it, recording a whopping 487 yards after the catch, good for seventh-most among receivers in the NFL’s regular season. He will continue to have success in the role, but it won’t be the only role for him in Kansas City moving forward.

Hardman doesn’t have a lot of experience acting as the team’s lead receiver with Tyreek Hill on the sidelines, but when he’s had the opportunity, he flashed. Back in 2019, Hardman’s average depth of target was 12.25 from Week 2 through Week 5 when Hill was out with a sternoclavicular joint dislocation. This is to say that on average, he was catching passes more than 12 yards past the line of scrimmage. Hardman’s average depth of target extrapolated over the course of a season would have been good for 36th in the NFL. Hill, who is known as the league’s premier deep threat, has never had more than 12.9 average depth of target in a single season.

For reference, Marquez Valdes-Scantling has led the NFL in average depth of target in each of the past two seasons (over 18 each time). It’s hard to imagine Hardman hitting Valdes-Scantling’s numbers (especially when they’re on the same team), but it’s not unreasonable to think he could at least match the league average (around 10 yards) in a season with a greater share of opportunities.

If that isn’t enough evidence that Hardman can excel as more than a gadget receiver, consider how good he is at creating separation. Last season, Hardman’s target separation against man coverage ranked the second-best in the NFL among receivers per with 2.83 yards of separation per target. Basically, in man coverage situations where he was targeted, Hardman was getting open with some of the highest frequency in the NFL.

But wait, there’s even more.

You might not think of Hardman as an elite target in the red zone because of his size and skillset. He only had a 6% contested catch rate last year, which isn’t very good. But he also finished 16th in the NFL with 16 targets and nine receptions in the red zone. Two of those receptions resulted in touchdowns and the rest helped the Chiefs get into position to put up points.

It’s understandable that people are skeptical of Hardman after his first three seasons in the league. There are also plenty of reasons to be optimistic that he can thrive in an expanded role where he’s asked to do more than he was in prior seasons.

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