We don’t know for sure, and we may never know for sure, what did or did not happen with Tyreek Hill and his son. However, the objective of this article is not to discuss Hill’s guilt or innocence, only to analyze what we do know and go from there. As of this moment, what we do know is that the NFL has cleared Hill to play in 2019 with no suspension. As a result, many Mecole Hardman dynasty owners are likely disappointed, as their investment just took a sharp downturn in value in the short-term. But this is exactly why there may be a slight discount to buy Hardman right now. Let’s take a look at Hardman’s situation and talent, the two biggest factors 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, Kansas City’s 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 other primary receivers on the Chiefs as they relate to Hardman:
The recent news that Hill will receive no suspension after an in-depth investigation into the well-being of his son this offseason was the final turn of a very complex roller coaster. Now that Hill’s dynasty value is stabilizing and returning to that of a top-10 or even top-five dynasty receiver, Hardman’s dynasty value may fall in certain leagues. After all, Hardman’s rookie ADP was inflated due to concerns that Hill could potentially miss some or all of the 2019 season, with Hardman being selected generally somewhere between the mid-first and mid-second round of most rookie drafts. Now that Hill will play the entire season barring injury, Hardman may not contribute immediately.
But Hill’s current contract ends after this season, and there is no guarantee that Hill and the Chiefs will come to a long-term contract extension. After all, even if Hill was by most measures exonerated in this most recent incident, it still raises concerns about whether he can stay out of trouble long-term. Chiefs GM Brett Veach will need to weigh what level of risk the organization is willing to accept to retain a difference-maker for the offense like Hill. And even if Kansas City determines that the risk of another off-field incident is low enough to extend Hill, that alone may not be enough. It’s likely that Hill will want a record-setting contract similar to the one that Odell Beckham just got from Cleveland this offseason, somewhere in the range of $90 million over five years. It’s possible that Hill and the Chiefs don’t come to an agreement, in which case he could end up signing with a different team with more salary cap space next offseason. Losing Hill would free up 137 targets from last season.
The combination of Hill and Watkins unquestionably gives the Chiefs one of top wide receiver duos in the league. Watkins’s dynasty value was also on the upswing during the turmoil with Hill’s situation, as he was projected to be the top receiver in Kansas City for some or all of the 2019 season. But even then, there was risk in acquiring Watkins in dynasty formats due to injury concerns. After a 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% 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 he under performs for any other reason, Kansas City could choose to part with him rather than pay his pricey $21 million price tag in 2020. Finally, even if Watkins produces this season, the Chiefs could feel comfortable enough on offense without him and choose to address other concerns instead with that money, potentially on a long-term contract for DE Chris Jones due to the already poor state of the defense. A Watkins departure would open up about 5.5 targets per game based on his per-game target share in 2018.
It’s likely that Kelce will be a Chief for the foreseeable future, but it’s far from guaranteed. Like Watkins, while his current contract runs for multiple years, the Chiefs could save $8 million if they cut Kelce after 2019. Kelce will be playing in his age 30 season in 2020, and while the odds of the Chiefs cutting him are slim, he could still potentially lose some explosiveness and speed that make him such a dominant cog on the offense. The more possible scenario is that Kelce stays in Kansas City but loses a bit of his efficiency.
Though he would still remain a key piece of the offense for Mahomes, it’s not impossible to imagine his target share declining as he ages. Even projecting for just a very slight decline in speed and effectiveness, Kelce is unlikely to continue averaging a dominant 12.9 yards per reception, as he has thus far in his career. In addition, His 9.4 targets per game last year was already an outlier from his career average of 7.2 targets per game. It will be difficult for him to replicate his 150 targets from 2018, which accounted for a whopping 25.9% of Mahomes’s pass attempts.
As outlined above, there are a number of scenarios that would open up a large amount of targets for other players. Hill’s departure, a Watkins injury or departure, and even a slight decrease in target share for Kelce could change the landscape of Kansas City’s offense. While Byron Pringle and Demarcus Robinson or a free agent 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.
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 a tantalizing 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 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 short 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. Hardman has the tools to develop from just an explosive play-maker into a dominant NFL receiver, especially under the tutoring 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. After that, all it will take is for one of the current top-three Chiefs receivers to miss time or depart from the team. 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. With the sudden news of no suspension for Hill, now is the perfect time to approach disappointed dynasty GMs holding Hardman on their rosters.
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