In the offseason, the Kansas City Chiefs received praise for their additions to the offensive line to help Patrick Mahomes following his run-for-your-life loss last February in the Super Bowl to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
While many of the necessary boxes seemed to be checked, there is still one big looming question over the Chiefs’ offense: Who will step up as the No. 2 wideout?
Entering his third season with plenty of opportunity coming his way, it’s time for Mecole Hardman to take control of that spot on the depth chart.
In his last three years as the Chiefs’ No. 2 wide receiver, Sammy Watkins was everything Kansas City needed him to be. Yes, he missed a total of 14 games in those three years, but that wasn’t anything new for Watkins, given his injury history.
He provided another constant vertical threat that defenses had to pay attention to instead of shifting all their focus on the outside to Tyreek Hill. Watkins’ presence alone opened up one-on-one opportunities for Hill.
Watkins was even more clutch in the postseason. He notched at least 62 yards receiving in each of his first five playoff games with Kansas City. The one that will always stand out is his Super Bowl performance against the San Francisco 49ers two years ago when he tallied five catches and 98 yards.
Now he’s off to Baltimore in an under-the-radar move. Kansas City didn’t do anything to address his vacancy in the offseason.
It’s left the door wide open for Hardman, who’s entering his third year in the league and is still just 23 years old.
Hardman is an absolute speed demon, and, like Hill, he can take the lid off of a secondary. Yet opportunities have been scarce in his first two seasons, and he’s only racked up 67 receptions in two full seasons. If he’s able to prove his worth this year, opportunities won’t be an issue.
Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid knows the importance of having a true No. 2 wideout for this offense to alleviate the pressure on Tyreek Hill. He’s fidgeted with Hardman’s role in the preseason and even caught him by surprise when he inserted Hardman into Hill’s spot in Week 2 of the preseason against the Arizona Cardinals.
It wasn’t by design, Hill ended up being a late scratch, but there’s a method to the madness for Reid. He knew what he was doing by having Hardman as the last-second fill-in to go with the starters. He was trying to show the young wideout what it takes to be ready this year, something Reid noted via USAToday.com.
“He was a last-minute fill-in there at that position,” Reid said of his third-year wideout, emphasizing the importance of preparation and quick thinking. “He’s got to be ready for that, along with everything else. So, he had a couple of things he’d like to have back, but it was great for he and Pat to communicate in a preseason game and just see how important that is, get it on tape and see what we’re talking about there. I mean, listen, he made some good plays, but he had a couple in there that weren’t so good. But he kept battling, which I thought was important. He’s playing fast and working hard.”
Kansas City’s offense is loaded again; nobody doubts that. There’s a case to be made that Kansas City has the best quarterback, best tight end, and a top-three receiver all in one huddle. But injuries happen, and in this current climate of the reserve/COVID-19 lists in the NFL, there’s even more uncertainty about what a roster could look like every week.
The offense looks picture-perfect right now. They took care of priority No. 1 in the offseason, which is protecting Mahomes. But if Hill or Travis Kelce were to slip out of the lineup for even a game or two, that unit looks entirely different. While this was the case in the last couple of years, Reid knew he at least had a reliable option in Watkins, a true No. 2 with plenty of experience torching secondaries. That role and those expectations now fall on the shoulders of Hardman.
Kansas City doesn’t need Hardman to be an 80 receptions guy or a 1,000-yard receiver. They’ll leave that up to Hill and Kelce. They will need the durability Hardman has demonstrated in his first two seasons — he hasn’t missed a game — and the season averages that Watkins set a pace for, which is around 60 catches per season. If he can provide that and be consistent for the Chiefs’ offense, the domino effect will be in motion to keep Hill available on the outside. And that’s just the way Andy Reid would prefer it.
This is the season for Mecole Hardman to enter No. 2-wideout territory.