This is an update to a prior article, as Week 1 events have caused significant changes to the receiver depth chart in Kansas City. Tyreek Hill suffered a rare sternalclavicluar (SC) joint injury. Per Dr. David Chao (@ProFootballDoc), Hill will miss multiple weeks in the course of his recovery and rehab, and his absence could span as long as eight weeks. While it’s reassuring that the Chiefs have not placed Hill on injured reserve, the offense will still operate without their no. 1 wide receiver for some time.
Once the NFL announced that there would be no suspension for Hill this offseason, rookie wide receiver Mecole Hardman‘s draft stock fell from the first round of rookie drafts into the mid-late second. There was little to no expectation for short-term production from the Chiefs’ second-round draft selection, but I outlined in my previous article why this was a buy-low opportunity to acquire Hardman. Now there’s suddenly an opportunity for short-term production in addition to Hardman’s tantalizing long-term outlook. Following Hill’s SC injury, here’s an updated analysis on Hardman’s situation and talent, the two biggest factors in projecting for fantasy success.
Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes accomplished something truly special last year with the Chiefs offense. There’s good reason for Kansas City fans to be optimistic about a Super Bowl win in the next couple of years, and there could even be reason to believe that the Chiefs could win multiple Super Bowls in the next decade. Regardless of what else happens, this offense will be one to invest in for fantasy purposes for the foreseeable future as long as Reid and Mahomes are leading it. So let’s discuss the current landscape of this Kansas City team.
Hill signed a three-year, $54 million extension on September 6th, tethering him to this explosive Chiefs offense for the foreseeable future. While Hill will likely remain the no. 1 receiver on the depth chart through the 2022 season, this is still a high-powered offense that will offer plenty of fantasy relevance to whoever is the no. 3 receiving option behind Hill and Travis Kelce. Up until a few days ago, that someone was Sammy Watkins. However, with Hill out for somewhere in the range of four to eight weeks, Watkins moves to the top of the wide receiver depth chart, and there’s a decent chance that Hardman will step into the no. 3 receiving role behind Watkins and Kelce.
While Demarcus Robinson and the recently activated DeAnthony Thomas could usurp Hardman’s opportunity, Hardman is still the leading candidate to earn more playing time given the premium second-round pick the Chiefs used to draft him in 2019. In Week 1 at Jacksonville, Hardman played 53 snaps on offense (78% of the total offensive snaps) vs. just 43 snaps (63%) for Robinson. And although Thomas is a more seasoned veteran, he is most likely replacing Byron Pringle‘s role on special teams following his release, as Thomas has contributed more on special teams than on offense during his six-year tenure in Kansas City. Despite the presence of Robinson and Thomas, Hardman seems poised to have the biggest opportunity among all Chiefs wide receivers not named Watkins. How much opportunity will there be? That remains uncertain, as it’s definitely possible that Mahomes will simply target Watkins, Kelce, and the running backs more during Hill’s absence. After all, both LeSean McCoy and Damien Williams are both capable receiving backs who can add yards after the catch.
But while it’s uncertain whether Hardman will make major contributions this week, the stage is still set for him to make some highlight-reel plays. Raiders starting cornerback Gareon Conley suffered a scary neck injury on Monday night in the fourth quarter against the Broncos, and while it’s a relief that he’s since been released from the hospital in good condition, it’s unlikely that Conley will suit up to play against Kansas City this Sunday. With Conley likely out for Week 2, this leaves second-round rookie cornerback Trayvon Mullen (who filled in late following Conley’s injury) starting opposite veteran Daryl Worley. While Mullen was consistent at Clemson, facing an elite Chiefs offense in his first start will be a tall order. The two second-round rookies could face off on quite a few snaps, but regardless of how Watkins and Hardman line up pre-snap, safety coverage will likely shift toward Watkins after his astounding Week 1 performance. With the dangerous Kelce compelling his share of attention from the defense as well, there’s a distinct possibility that Hardman will be left one-on-one on quite a few snaps this week, giving him plenty of chances to break a big play. If and when Hardman makes a big play, it will be difficult for Reid to not have him on the field for the duration of Hill’s absence.
Additionally, though Watkins is currently the unquestioned no. 1 wide receiver with Hill out, the injury concerns remain. Watkins looked electric and fully healthy during the first game of the season against the Jaguars, but since his healthy rookie season in 2014, Watkins has missed 18 regular season games in the last four years and has played at less than full health in an additional number of games for which he was active over this span. Missing about 30 percent of his games over these last four seasons due to various foot and other injuries is a definite concern.
Looking beyond his injury risk, Watkins also may not be in Kansas City long-term. His current contract runs through 2020, but the Chiefs could cut him after this season with only a $7 million hit in dead money. If Watkins misses significant time due to injury in 2019, or if Hardman shows well as a rookie, Kansas City could feel comfortable enough with Hill, Kelce, and Hardman leading this offense through the air. The Chiefs could part with Watkins rather than pay his pricey $21 million price tag in 2020, instead choosing to address other concerns with that money, potentially on a long-term contract for defensive end Chris Jones due to the already poor state of the defense. Hardman will surely be added in plenty of redraft leagues this week, but his dynasty outlook is even more enticing. A Watkins departure for whatever reason would vault Hardman into the conversation as a potential top-24 dynasty wide receiver.
Of course, even if any or all of the above scenarios play out as described, all the opportunity in the world wouldn’t necessarily make Hardman an instant fantasy superstar if he doesn’t have the talent to exploit said opportunity. While he’s still a somewhat raw prospect, Hardman’s 4.33 40-yard dash speed makes him an alluring prospect on an innovative offense like the Chiefs. Per Pro Football Focus (PFF), Mahomes had the third-highest depth-adjusted completion percentage in 2018. Even before refining his route tree, Reid’s highly-efficient offense and Mahomes’s deep-ball accuracy can make Hardman a dangerous deep threat.
Additionally, PFF notes that Hardman ranked third in yards per route run among all wide receivers in the 2019 rookie class, averaging an impressive 8.3 yards after the catch per reception during his final season at the University of Georgia. PFF also notes that Mahomes led the league in yards per attempt on screen passes last season. With Reid’s ability to create plays to scheme Hardman open in space and Mahomes’s accuracy on these shorter passes, Hardman will be able to maximize his natural ability to create yards after the catch.
The most endearing endorsement for Hardman is that he played defensive back in high school and only has two college seasons of experience as a wide receiver. He has the tools to develop from just an explosive play-maker into a dominant NFL receiver, especially under the tutelage of Reid and company, who in recent years turned a raw receiver named Tyreek Hill into a dominant top-5 NFL and dynasty receiver. Possessing many of the same tools and strengths, Hardman could soon pair his athletic gifts with more saavy route-running technique to equal or even eclipse Hill’s production in this Chiefs offense.
Given his strengths as well as those of Reid and Mahomes, Hardman is set up to contribute immediately, even on an offense already filled with play-makers. Beyond his short-term opportunity for production though, Hardman also has WR1 potential long-term if he can develop into a better route-runner and complete receiver. At the price of a second-round rookie pick, or even if it takes a late first-round rookie pick in a lauded 2020 rookie class, Hardman’s sky-high potential is well-worth the acquisition. Week 1 was the grand reveal for rookie wide receivers from the 2019 class with exciting performances from the likes of Marquise Brown, A.J. Brown, Terry McLaurin, and D.K. Metcalf. Hardman is late to the party, but sometimes the best is yet to come. The buy-low windows on the aforementioned rookie receivers have slammed firmly shut, but there’s still time to acquire Hardman. This week could very well be the last chance to buy low on Hardman, as any big play he makes in Week 2 would likely send his price skyrocketing back to up to the level of an early 2020 first-round rookie pick.
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