Chiefs WR Mecole Hardman Jr. is not Tyreek Hill — and that’s OK

Bengals Chiefs Football
Posted at 3:17 PM, Apr 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-19 16:21:23-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When the Kansas City Chiefs drafted wide receiver Mecole Hardman Jr., the comparisons to Tyreek Hill were inevitable — fair or not.

With Hill suspended from team activities three years ago after a taped conversation with his former fiancee Crystal Espinal was leaked to the press, the Kansas City Chiefs moved up to draft Hardman, whose elite straight-line speed made it easy for fans to connect the dots.

Trouble was, Hardman wasn’t then and isn’t now the second coming of Hill.

“Everybody puts that thing on (him) that he’s got to replace Tyreek,” quarterback Patrick Mahomes said.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid acknowledged that Hardman has speed “like a Tyreek had,” but he’s also quick to note that Hardman plays the position differently — and that’s OK, according to Mahomes.

“I think he can be his own player, which can be a Pro Bowler and a great player in this offense as well,” said Mahomes, who projects a “great season” for Hardman if he “continues to evolve and play hard and practice hard.”

The comparisons to Hill — who was traded to Miami last month for a raft of draft picks, including first-, second- and fourth-rounders this season — probably were never fair.

NFL Draft observers more often compared Hardman to a less experienced and polished version of former Kansas State and current Seattle Seahawks standout Tyler Lockett.

Through that lens, Hardman’s career might appear different to Chiefs fans.

During his first three NFL seasons, Lockett averaged 46 catches for 605 yards with three touchdowns.

Hardman’s career averages for his first three NFL seasons are eerily similar — 42 catches for 597 yards with four touchdowns — and both made the Pro Bowl as a return specialist as rookies.

Lockett, a seven-year veteran, has gone on to establish himself as a top-end receiver in the NFL, averaging 78 catches for 1,063 yards with nine touchdowns during the last four years.

That doesn’t mean Hardman’s destined for a similarly meteoric rise, but it shows that such a leap wouldn’t be unprecedented.

Hardman, who converted to wide receiver from defensive back after his freshman year at the University of Georgia, was a raw prospect with only two years of experience at the position when he was drafted.

After averaging an eye-popping 20.7 yards per reception with six touchdowns as a rookie, he’s settled into more of a gadget role in the two years since — averaging 13.7 yards per catch in 2020 and 11.7 yards last season with six receiving touchdowns in that span.

But he’ll get a chance to show that he can be more as the most senior member of the wide-receivers group for a Chiefs team that must replace three of its top four receivers and roughly 75% of its production with the departures of Hill, Byron Pringle and Demarcus Robinson.

“The opportunity is bigger,” Hardman said.

Last season, Hardman amassed career-highs with 83 targets, 59 catches and 693 yards, so hope springs eternal that Hardman still has untapped potential.

“He just needs to continue to be himself,” quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. “He doesn’t need to be Tyreek Hill. He has to be Mecole Hardman ... and I think he can keep getting better and better.”

Will he completely replace Hill’s franchise-record 111 receptions, team-best 1,239 yards and team-leading nine touchdown receptions, which was tied with tight end Travis Kelce? Probably not — but he also doesn’t have to with the additions of veterans Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Juju Smith-Schuster via free agency.

“Ultimately, I would love for him (Hill) to be back on the team,” Hardman said. “Someone like that you want on your team. He brings a lot to the game and a lot that defenses have to prepare for, so it’s definitely a hit for sure.”

But it’s also one Hardman hopes to help the Chiefs absorb.

As for his expectations for 2022, Hardman said, “Be better than I was last year, honestly. That’s what I can say. A once-in-a-generation player has left the team, so somebody’s got to step up and fill the role or multiple of us have to step up and try to fill that void. Personally, I just want to be better than I was last year — get better as an overall receiver and establish my name a little bit more, catching the ball, running routes and yards after catch.”