Julio Jones, Davante Adams, DK Metcalf.
When fans think of the “prototypical wide receiver”, receivers like the three listed above are the first to come to mind. These wide receivers are, generally, their teams “X Wide Receiver” (referred to as X-WR from here on out). So, what is an X-WR?
The X-WR is the wide receiver that lines up the furthest away from the tight end on the line of scrimmage, if applicable, and they're generally on the line of scrimmage to get up to the mandatory seven players on the line of scrimmage required by NFL rules. So this usually means that the X-WR lines up on the outside, on the line of scrimmage. This alignment means this wide receiver must possess a specific skill set, capable of beating press-man coverage.
Sammy Watkins is the Chiefs' normal X-WR, with Tyreek Hill usually lining up as the Z-WR (the wide receiver on the opposite side of the X-WR). This is the most common alignment for these wide receivers, as Watkins is arguably the Chiefs' best wide receiver at beating press-man, which an X-WR will see a lot of, and Hill excels with the free releases that being the Z-WR brings.
In games without Sammy Watkins, however, we can see how the Chiefs view their current personnel. Due to a hamstring injury, Watkins will be missing a few weeks and the game Monday against the Buffalo Bills was the first week to see how the Chiefs will use their wide receivers in Watkins' absence.
There was much talk about which backup wide receiver would take Watkins’ role in the offense as the X-WR and a lot of buzz centered on second-year wide receiver Mecole Hardman. Even here on Arrowhead Report, there were quite a few discussions about which receiver would benefit from Watkins being out like Jordan Foote’s article “Will the Chiefs’ Real WR3 Please Stand Up?”
Hardman has great innate ability as he combines his exceptional speed with great acceleration and agility, but his development as a wide receiver hasn’t seemed quite there yet. Many in the Chiefs community were excited to see if Hardman could step up with more snaps at wide receiver, and Hardman himself talked about stepping up in the absence of Watkins, which seemed to hint that his role in the offense would grow.
What transpired on Monday, however, did not follow the pregame expectations for Hardman and his role in the Chiefs' offense.
It was not Hardman who benefitted from Watkins' absence, as his snap share seemed unphased. It was Demarcus Robinson (who filled in at X-WR) and Byron Pringle (who saw his snap count go up a fair bit) who got a longer look.
If Hardman cannot see work at Sammy Watkins’ role this year, then it is fair to question if he ever will. Hardman’s skill set does not really scream X-WR when looking at him as a player. He isn’t physically imposing, he is poor against press-man, and his route-running is still sub-par. He is best-suited to be used like Tyreek Hill is, lining up at Z-WR or in the slot and running deep routes to open up the offense.
So the question then becomes, who is the Chiefs X-WR in 2021? As of now, the two wide receivers who got the most work at X-WR are not on the team in 2021, with both Watkins and Robinson’s contracts expiring after the 2020 season. If the Chiefs truly don’t believe Hardman can play this role, and as of now they have a good reason to think this, then they might be searching for a new X-WR in the NFL Draft.
2020’s wide receiver draft class is shaping up to be an all-timer. Already, many rookies are having great years at wide receiver, including Justin Jefferson, Tee Higgens, CeeDee Lamb, and Chase Claypool. The crazy thing is that the 2021 class might be just as good. Headlined by superstar LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, the 2021 wide receiver class is already getting buzz as another fantastic crop of talent. The Chiefs will have a real chance to draft an impact player at wide receiver if they so choose. If Watkins and Robinson don’t return to the team, they might have to in order to keep the stable of weapons stocked around Mahomes.
What does all of this mean for Mecole Hardman’s future? Well, as of now, it’s hard to say. Hardman’s skill set is very unique and highly coveted in the NFL, as his speed is game-breaking. As a secondary option in the offense, he is a really good threat to use throughout a game from the Z-WR spot or from the slot. Even then, his role has been limited, and the Chiefs must be wondering if he can be more than that.
Considering that Hardman came into the NFL as a raw wide receiver who has only played the position for a few years, it is hard to say how he will develop going forward. Either way, the Chiefs made it apparent that right now he is not a replacement for Sammy Watkins, and maybe Chiefs fans should adjust their expectations for Hardman going forward due to this revelation.