Why Chiefs may have a Tyreek Hill replacement in rookie Mecole Hardman
The rookie has blazing speed and Reid will know how to use him. What areas of his game need to improve?
When the Kansas City Chiefs traded up in the second round to select Georgia speedster receiver Mecole Hardman at No. 56 overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, we all thought one thing: Tyreek Hill replacement.
Patrick Mahomes' favorite target has been suspended from team activities for involving a child abuse investigation, and at this point it seems likely he's already played his last down as a member of the Chiefs.
While not meant to make light of the situation at hand with Hill, this article analyzes Hardman's unenviable task of standing in as another Hill-type wideout in Kansas City's outrageously productive offense.
Before I get rolling, I want to be clear on something. Hardman is not Hill. In fact, to me, there's not a human on Earth right now who can do the things Hill is capable of on a football field. So the expectations need to really be tempered. But can the former Bulldogs downfield specialist, at times, threaten defenses similarly to the way Hill has? Yes.
Hardman ran the second-fastest 40-time among receivers at the combine this year. But to give perspective on just how electric Hill is, take a look at the comparison of the receivers' pre-draft workouts.
5'8" / 185
5'11" / 187
*Hill's entire workout happened at his pro day. Hardman's agility drills took place at the Georgia pro day. The rest of his workout occurred at the 2019 NFL Combine.
Hardman has juice. No doubt about that. He plays to 4.33 on the field. The twitchiness and ease at which Hill changes directions is unmatched by Hardman or anyone else in currently in the NFL.
The easiest way for Hardman to take on the Hill role in Kansas City's offense is by way of the jet sweep. High-percentage gadget play that immediately puts the ball in the hands of a dynamic athlete, and often leads to big gains, especially in the Chiefs' wide open attack.
Here's Hill on one -- that features a toss, not a direct hand off -- against the Chargers last season.
Believe it or not, Hardman was rarely utilized on jet sweeps at Georgia, and that wrinkle will allow him to get comfortable as a rookie.
For all of us who've watched the Chiefs' passing offense with Hill a central figure -- even dating back to days with Alex Smith at quarterback-- Andy Reid has been sure to utilize's Hill's insane downfield speed when the receiver was given a free release.
Here, against the Jets in 2017, playing on the outside, Hill exploded off the line as the corner sank into zone coverage. He floated toward the boundary just enough to get the defensive back to hesitate for a split second then the afterburners were flipped on. Touchdown.
Even if Hardman isn't as sudden as Hill, the 4.33 speed will be on the defensive scouting report each week, and if he's given a clean release off the line of scrimmage, he can be very impactful on downfield routes that feature a fake to create separation.
Against Missouri in 2018, Hardman sold the flag route awesomely before sticking his foot in the ground and running to daylight. Touchdown.
The Missouri cornerback bit harder than the Jets cornerback, but each receiver sold the out-breaking route well, broke back to the inside, and accelerated for the relatively easy score. Reid will call these double-move shot plays for Hardman this season. You can bet on that.
Not all of the downfield shots to Hill have been longer-developing double moves.
The slot fade has been a major weapon for the Chiefs with Hill, and it's a simple way for Hardman to make an easy transition to the NFL. What is the slot fade, you ask? From the slot, the receiver releases to the outside and runs away from the corner while -- typically -- drifting toward the sideline. And it doesn't have to be short route into the end zone, which is when we normally hear the "term" fade.
Here's Hill winning at the line to the outside from the slot against the Raiders, and, yep, touchdown.
This is a pretty common route in every offense at the collegiate and NFL level, and it's the ideal type of route to be run by a shifty speedster against man coverage. The most famous play Hardman made in his career came on a slot fade in the national title game against Alabama in January of 2018, and it was an exquisite demonstration of him playing to his 4.33 speed.
He's lined up second from the top of the screen. Notice how hard he accelerated and the subtle wiggle to the inside before flying downfield for an 80-yard touchdown.
On that play, Hardman ran past Crimson Tide cornerback Tony Brown, who just so happened to run 4.35 at the combine less than two months later.
Beyond the deep shots that accentuate Patrick Mahomes' arm strength and incredible aggressiveness, another staple of Reid's offense -- really, the West Coast Offense -- is the use of the slant and shallow cross, two routes that stretch the defense horizontally and are disastrous to cover in man especially when being run by a wideout with sub 4.40 speed.
This type of route, with Hardman aligned in the middle of a three-wide set at the bottom of the screen looks like it's straight from Reid's playbook. The receivers on either side of Hardman run go routes, and the inner-most wideout's path creates a natural rub for the speedy pass catcher as he breaks across the field.
Hardman will run some variation of that route, from a similar formation in 2018. [Men's Warehouse guy voice] I guarantee it.
A route we didn't see Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm find Hardman on (often) at Georgia -- the deep cross, and it's a route Hill's been borderline uncoverable running during his time with the Chiefs.
Of course, it's not a particularly difficult or intricate route to run. That statement comes with a caveat. It requires an efficient release off the line against press coverage, which is the coverage against which it can create the largest chunk plays. Many tiny receivers struggle against press man in the NFL because they lack the length and strength relative to the cornerback they're facing, an athletic specimen in his own right who often sells out to disrupt the timing of the route by even a half second.
Hill's press releases are absurd, and much of that has to do with how electric his movements are from the waist down. His lightning quick hands can, at times, slap away a press attempt too.
Hardman has to improve in that area, and do so fast, to bring anywhere near the amount of efficiency Hill gave the Chiefs the past three seasons. Since he entered the league in 2016, Hill's 10.02 yards-per-target figure trails only Julio Jones' 10.13 among wideouts who've accumulated at least 300 targets in that span. Also, he's the only wideout to eclipse 10.0 yards per target in each of the last three years.
Beyond gadget usage, Reid-schemed plays in which Hardman's teammates provide him clean releases with complementary route combinations will be the quickest way he can produce at a high level in Kansas City. Fortunately for the Chiefs, it's not like Hardman will see press man on every snap, and the downfield shot plays have to come when he can build speed without a cornerback in his face on the line.
Generally speaking, Hardman is decently raw, particularly when dealing with press coverage. Bettering himself in that area will take time. But his immense acceleration and downfield speed will be a problem. Coupled with Reid's offensive genius -- that's recently experienced tailoring a good deal of the offense around Hill's skill set -- and Mahomes' outrageous arm talent, the second-round selection can provide the Chiefs with a very "lite" version of Hill in 2018 and beyond.
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