Last week, the Jets announced that they had signed former Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman. Today, we break down Hardman in detail.
The 25-year old Hardman is listed at 5’10” and 187 pounds and was a second round pick out of Georgia in 2019. He has caught 151 passes for over 2,000 yards in four seasons at the NFL level and scored 23 total touchdowns in regular and postseason action.
Hardman was a highly sought-after five star high school recruit, who headed to Georgia in 2016 but began his career as a cornerback. After only playing seven defensive snaps but making some good contributions on special teams in his freshman year, Hardman converted to wide receiver.
Over the next two seasons, Hardman only started six games but he showcased some good playmaking ability as he was named as a second-team all-SEC selection in each season. In all, he caught 60 passes and scored 14 touchdowns.
Having opted to enter the NFL draft after his junior year, Hardman performed well at his combine and pro day workouts and was eventually a late second round pick for the Chiefs.
As a rookie, Hardman only caught 26 passes but showcased some big play abilities as he averaged over 20 yards per catch, caught six touchdown passes and returned a kickoff for a score. He was named to the all-rookie team and was also a pro bowler and second-team all-pro as a return man.
In 2020, his production increased as he had 41 catches, including four touchdowns. He also returned a punt for a touchdown and caught another touchdown pass in the postseason.
Hardman had a career year in 2021 as he caught 59 passes and had over 700 yards from scrimmage. He also had his best postseason campaign with 176 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns.
2022 saw him miss nine games due to an injury that landed him on injured reserve in the middle of the year and also disrupted his postseason. He ended up with 25 catches and six total touchdowns.
Although it wasn’t his most productive season due to the injury issues, Hardman did have one game with three touchdowns and the first 100-yard game of his career.
The Jets signed Hardman to a one-year contract worth up to $6.5 million, with much of that in potential incentives.
Now let’s take a look at what Hardman brings to the table, divided into categories.
Hardman is undersized and doesn’t have a big catch radius, but he has excellent speed and acceleration, which he demonstrated by running a 4.33 in the 40-yard dash at the combine. He also impressed with a 119-inch broad jump and 17 bench press reps.
He waited until his pro day to do the agility drills, posting an outstanding 6.75 in the three-cone drill.
Hardman is a versatile weapon who can line up outside or in the slot and will regularly be put in motion. He generates a lot of production on jet sweeps and pop passes.
He has also taken snaps lined up in the backfield, as the quarterback or motioned into an h-back position. As noted, he was a cornerback during his first season in college and he was also a dual-threat quarterback in high school.
Hardman tracks and locates the ball well on downfield passes and, with his 4.3 speed, is obviously a player who can exploit any hesitation in the defense to be a downfield threat.
He’s usually good for a handful of downfield catches per season, mostly on deep crossers, post routes or corner routes. However, he didn’t have any 40-yard plays in 2022 having had 12 in regular and postseason action in his first three seasons.
As someone who hasn’t been a wide receiver for very long, Hardman had a tendency to rely on his speed to get open at the college level and some of the details in terms of how he gets off the line and where he makes his breaks weren’t optimized, leading to him struggling to get separation at times early in his career.
While much of his production comes on short passes anyway, he’s definitely better on those routes where he can build up speed going across the middle or downfield and is able to change direction well in these situations. On shorter routes where he has to gear down or make a sharp break, he’s less effective but has shown some development.
Hardman’s hands technique is generally good but he has juggled or dropped some easy catches at times. In 2020, he had eight drops, although his catch percentages have otherwise been solid at the college and NFL level.
He hasn’t made a lot of highlight-reel grabs at the NFL level, although he shows an ability to scoop up low passes and made a good one-handed sideline catch on one play. Here’s a play where he hangs onto a catch in tight coverage down the field.
Initially, Hardman was more of a big play threat than a red zone option as his first eight NFL touchdowns all came from outside the red zone. However, 11 of his last 14 offensive touchdowns including postseason play have been red zone scores as the Chiefs have had good success with him running plays like pop passes and jet sweeps inside the 10-yard line.
Here’s a play where he got open at the back corner of the end zone to make a touchdown catch.
After the catch
Most of Hardman’s best highlights have come after the catch as he led the league in yards after the catch per reception as a rookie and was second in the league in that category in 2020 and 2021.
Much of this comes from simply turning it upfield and running away from defenders because while he has the ability to slip an initial tackle, he often gets brought down when one on one with a defensive player in space.
One concern is fumbles. He has had six offensive fumbles in his four seasons and often doesn’t protect the ball adequately when in the open field.
Encouragingly, though, Hardman didn’t have any offensive fumbles during the 2022 season.
Hardman isn’t someone the Chiefs would generally look to rely upon as a blocker, but he gave a good effort made a nice play down the field here.
This play is more indicative of what you might expect to see from him on a more regular basis though.
Hardman is someone who can be re-routed or slowed down by physical coverage and he doesn’t have particularly good numbers on contested catches.
As noted, he doesn’t have much of an impact as a blocker, but he fights for yardage with the ball in his hands. This will often be futile as he will often struggle and require several players to bring him down but without actually gaining any extra yardage. He trucked the defender to get the first down here though.
With Braxton Berrios departing, the Jets seem to have filled his return game role by bringing in Hardman, although Hardman’s own return role had been reduced in recent years as he was taken off kickoffs. For his career, he has two touchdowns and averages 24 yards per kickoff return and nine yards per punt return.
Hardman displays good elusiveness and vision as a return man and has broken several long returns over the course of his career.
One negative has been muffs though. He has four muffed punts, including this big one in the playoffs.
It’s not just on returns that Hardman has contributed as a special teamer. He’s also rushed extra points and field goals off the edge at times, generating some good pressure. However, his error proved costly for the Chiefs in their Super Bowl loss to Tampa Bay when he lined up in the neutral zone on a field goal to give the Bucs a first down and then they took a 14-3 lead on the next play.
Hardman has also covered kicks a few times at the NFL level and has experience as a gunner in college, where he had four special teams tackles.
Instincts and Intelligence
Hardman was a member of the SEC Fall Academic Honor Roll in 2017 and displays his on-field smarts by being adept at leaking to open areas when his quarterback extends the play.
However, he’s also been a player who can be error prone. He made some questionable decisions when fielding and returning kicks, has five pre-snap penalties in his career and has also been guilty of running the wrong route at times.
One area where he excels is in terms of his open field instincts and vision when running with the ball on a return, catch or carry. He will follow his blockers and cut back to break into the clear on a regular basis.
Hardman is a confident player who is determined to improve but there were times when his playing time dipped and he didn’t seem to have much of a market in free agency.
He showed good character after that muffed punt against the Bills, bouncing back to make some big plays that led to the comeback win.
Hardman also had an unnecessary roughness penalty after getting into it with an opponent at the end of a play, but that was called on both players so the penalties were off-set.
Hardman hadn’t previously had many injury issues in his career, but he was really banged-up in 2022. He tweaked his hamstring in May, injured his groin in preseason, hurt his ankle in October and then ended up in injured reserve with an abdominal/pelvic injury in November.
He returned close to the end of the season but was inactive in the season finale and the first playoff game, then ineffective in his return in the AFC title game as he suffered a reoccurrence of the same injury. He was unable to play in the Super Bowl but has recently said he expects to be ready for OTAs.
Hardman should replace Berrios’ contributions on offense as well because he plays a pretty similar role. Hopefully his success playing with Patrick Mahomes will translate to him also being productive catching passes from Aaron Rodgers with the Jets.
He has been a teammate of current Jets Will Parks and Greg Senat while he was playing for Kansas City.
Hardman has been a good playmaker for the Chiefs, although their fanbase seemed somewhat divided on him due to some of his mistakes over the course of his career. Some resentment also inevitably stems from the fact that he was selected just ahead of perennial pro bowler DK Metcalf.
With the Jets, he’ll be joining a group that already boasts productive players like Garrett Wilson and Allen Lazard, so he can again settle into a supporting role.
He’s definitely a dangerous big-play threat, who could be effective with Rodgers and should add an extra dimension to the team’s red zone efficiency. Hopefully he can stay healthy and play with more consistency in 2023 as he looks for a longer-term commitment from the team.