- Mecole Hardman's fantasy value will depend heavily on Tyreek Hill's playing status.
With Tyreek Hill’s playing status this season in question amidst allegations of child abuse, the Chiefs traded the 61st and 167th picks in the draft to move up to pick 56, where they drafted speedy receiver Mecole Hardman out of Georgia. Before the ink on the paper submitting Hardman’s name was dry, speculation about his role began. Specifically, can he replace Hill? And, even more to the point, will Hill miss any time?
There is inherent risk associated with banking on any rookie receiver, and the comparisons between Hardman and Hill athletically and stylistically are limited to speed and return skills. Hill was primarily a running back in college and has been learning the receiver position as a pro, while Hardman was a two-year starter at receiver for Georgia and needs to work on his route-running. So, let’s take a look at the different factors associated with Hardman’s value, his potential to replace Hill, and his opportunity as a speedy rookie catching passes from Patrick Mahomes.
Hill might miss time, even if he doesn't face any formal charges. He might get released from the Chiefs. Or he may not be disciplined at all. The Kansas City Star reported earlier this month “prosecutors are no longer actively working the criminal case.” That doesn’t protect him from league discipline, but the NFL isn’t exactly known for consistency in how it punishes players involved in police investigations. All the Hardman love may be for naught in the end if Hill suits up for 16 games this season.
That being said, Hardman does have a tremendous amount of upside if Hill does miss time. Of the players expected to make the final 53-player roster in September, Hardman is the most similar to Hill in what he brings to the team. He was a dynamite return specialist in college, particularly on punt returns. Hill, meanwhile, was the primary punt returner for the Chiefs last season. Hardman, like Hill, is extremely fast, running a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at the combine. He should have no problem getting downfield in a hurry to catch one of Mahomes’ bombs. Hardman is shifty enough to gain yards after the catch and can blow by single coverage, making him a nice fit to replace Hill in the lineup.
Is speed alone enough to replace someone like Hill? Is it enough to be able to just blow by everyone? Clearly not, or all the players running sub-4.4-second 40’s would be All-Pro players like Hill. In fact, the 24 receivers with 40 times of 4.35 seconds or faster over the past 10 years, only two—Julio Jones and T.Y. Hilton—became Pro Bowlers, and none of them, Jones and Hilton included, hit 1,000 yards in their rookie seasons. This certainly doesn’t suggest that a great 40 time is a bad thing or that it isn’t a huge positive for Hardman’s potential as a pro.It does, however, indicate that he can’t get by on speed alone.
Slightly disturbing is the presence of Chris Conley on this chart, another former Georgia Bulldog who just left the Chiefs as a free agent to join the Jaguars. Conley never really put it together as a starter in Kansas City, despite ample opportunity. Here’s how Conley and Hardman compare:
Chris Conley vs. Mecole Hardman
Sheesh. Not a good sign.
Hardman was drafted high, and the Chiefs used two picks to get him. That tends to bode well in many data models, as draft capital often translates into more opportunities as a pro. Still, Kevin Zatloukal’s Three-Year Model for NFL Rookie WR Success gives Hardman “only about a 1-in-5 chance of success.” However, Kevin adds that he has a great opportunity if Hill misses time.
While he wasn’t expected to be drafted as highly as he was, the fact that a team was willing to invest a second-round pick in him, and to trade up for the privilege, bodes well for his potential. The Chiefs are likely to give him every opportunity to find a role and earn snaps, a luxury not afforded to later picks. Draft position doesn’t always mean a player is going to succeed, but it definitely helps with opportunity and shows the way a team values the talent it brings to the game.
Let’s say Hill misses time. Let’s assume draft position does mean Hardman gets his shot. What kind of shot are we talking about? Herein lies the buzz surrounding Hardman’s potential.
The Chiefs scored more points than any other team last year, and Hill was a top-three fantasy receiver in all scoring formats. He had 137 targets last season, and Conley had 52 balls thrown his way. If Hardman can get even half of those potentially vacated targets, he’ll be vying for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Travis Kelce will continue to get a ton of targets, and Sammy Watkins will also benefit if Hill misses time. Still, those two already combined for 205 targets last year, and it’s hard to imagine much additional work headed their way. There’s going to have to be someone else who steps up in the place of Hill, and Hardman seems like the most likely option. There are more vacated targets left from Kareem Hunt, but I would expect most of those to go to Damien Williams.
Hardman should win the return job. In addition to his success as a punt returner, he averaged 24.3 yards per kick return over his college career. The Chiefs were already looking to remove some of the return burden from Hill’s shoulders so he could focus more on offense, so a simple return specialist and sub-package offensive weapon seems like the floor for Hardman’s potential.
The bottom line is that Hardman is a boom-bust option. His price tag in most fantasy leagues is so low, though, that there’s hardly any risk, mitigating the bust part of the equation. In a couple of dynasty rookie drafts, I’ve grabbed him in the second round, which is about right for a receiver who’s expected to pay off in the long term. In re-draft leagues, his ADP is currently in the 17th round of 12-team formats. John Paulsen currently has him ranked 83rd among fantasy receivers in PPR league formats. With such little at risk and the potential payoff in being tied to Mahomes and Andy Reid, he’s well worth investment.