The Mecole Hardman signing is one that has been potentially lost in the shuffle this offseason. The move made sense, adding another pass catching weapon to the Jets’ new offense, on a low-cost, short-term deal that represented good value and gave them someone who could replace most of the things that the outgoing Braxton Berrios used to do.
Could we be underselling this deal though? Hardman told the media last week that he has been promised an expanded role by the Jets, who reportedly feel he has some untapped potential.
Hardman’s main role with the Chiefs was catching short passes and creating yards after the catch. He was also an occasional big play threat in his first few seasons and more of a red zone weapon in the last few.
His hope is that he can demonstrate a wider skill-set with the Jets, running a full route tree, increasing his production and enhancing his value as he seeks to get a longer deal from the Jets or another team at the end of the season.
However, is this something the Jets need Hardman to do? And, perhaps more importantly, can he do it?
Hardman, who was valued at $11 million per year by Spotrac.com, eventually signed a deal with the Jets that was worth a maximum of $6.5 million, with about half of that tied up in incentives so he’ll only earn that kind of money if he has a big year.
This kind of discussion seems somewhat reminiscent of the situation surrounding former Jets wide receiver Robby Anderson (who has since changed his name to Chosen Anderson). In his four years as a Jet, Anderson struggled to convince a series of coaches and coordinators (not to mention the media and a wide section of the fanbase) that he was capable of more and that his production was being restricted by treating him like a “one-trick pony”.
Sure enough, Anderson left the Jets to sign for Carolina, where he immediately unlocked his full potential by catching a career-high 95 passes and posting his first thousand-yard season. While Anderson’s career hasn’t exactly gone from strength to strength since then, it’s an interesting example of an NFL receiver exceeding expectations in a way similar to what the Jets will hope for from Hardman if all goes to plan.
In Anderson’s first two seasons, he had established himself as an excellent deep threat. He had caught nine touchdown passes, all on throws more than 20 yards downfield, but had also displayed improving route running skills and an ability to get open on short/intermediate routes and make yards after the catch.
In Adam Gase’s first year as Jets coach, a frustrated Anderson saw his development stunted as over 34 percent of his targets came on downfield throws, with a lower success rate due to how predictably he was being used (and Sam Darnold’s apparent inability to hit him deep with any kind of consistency).
When he was targeted on shorter routes, Anderson’s success rate was extremely good though. Statistically, it stacked up well with many of the top receivers around the league. Gase seemed to have figured this out late in the 2018 season, as Anderson got more quality, high-percentage targets than he had all year and responded with the best two-game stretch of his career to that point. He followed up a seven catch, 96-yard effort against the Texans with a nine-catch, 140 yard effort against Green Bay, scoring in each game.
2019 was a good opportunity to build on this, but it was as if Gase - who had dumped offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates and replaced him with Dowell Loggains - had forgotten about those games at the end of the 2018 season. Anderson got off to a frustratingly slow start and again it wasn’t until late in the season that they started using him smartly and he posted back-to-back 100-yard games against the Bengals and Dolphins.
Hardman presumably feels he has a similar “one-trick pony” reputation and wants to showcase more of his improving route running skills and ability to get open. While Anderson’s “one trick” was getting deep which meant he was either running decoy routes or getting low percentage targets, Hardman’s has been more of a gadget player who gets the ball close to or behind the line of scrimmage.
While Hardman has had some modest success with the short/intermediate routes that he has been targeted on, this hasn’t been on the same kind of level as Anderson had before his breakout year. Reviewing Hardman’s film shows a frustrating lack of attention to detail at times when running routes, which is a common issue with players who were used to relying on their speed to get open in college. However, he is difficult to stay with, especially on routes where he can change direction at full speed.
If there are some technical tweaks that could make a big difference to Hardman’s effectiveness in terms of his ability to get separation, it bodes well for him that he’s going to play for Nathaniel Hackett. Allen Lazard referred to Hackett as the best teacher he’s worked with in his entire career, so hopefully Hackett’s teachings can make a difference to Hardman and unlock some of that untapped potential.
It remains to be seen if the Jets really are going to expand Hardman’s role, or if this was just a promise made to him to try and secure his signature. With players like Odell Beckham, Randall Cobb and Marcedes Lewis still being talked about as potential additions, it may be difficult to find a player like Hardman enough touches to make taking his game to another level a reality.