Is Mecole Hardman the NFL’s greatest buried talent?

Chiefs WR Mecole Hardman might just be the NFL’s best buried talent.

On Thursday Night Football, under the bright lights of primetime, one of the league’s best rookie receivers in 2019 caught every pass that came his way. Unfortunately for Pro Bowler Mecole Hardman, the total number of targets was one.

Coming into the 2020 season, there was no denying a few truths about the Kansas City Chiefs offense. First, the team was going to score a lot of points, with considerably more proven playmakers than any other team.

Second, an already crowded batch of skill position players were being forced to make room for another in Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the team’s first round selection.

Third, the attitude required to “run it back” would be a team-first one—one that abandoned the notions of personal goals for the sake of enjoying the rare experience of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. It’s this last one that was going to affect some more than others.

After Week 1, it looks as if Hardman could be that man. Of course, things can change considerably week to week, and we want to be up front that the Chiefs could easily give Hardman a dozen targets against the Chargers in Week 2. Drawing conclusions on a single game is a lazy approach, so that’s certainly not what we’re advocating here.

Instead, what’s important to note is that the nature of limited targets, the reality of a team only having 8 to 11 or so drives in a game, is going to shortchange someone. For most teams, the notion that WR3 or WR4 won’t receive but a handful of reps is no problem. That player is usually a special teams maven, a developmental prospect, or an aging veteran. For the Chiefs, it forces someone to set aside personal ambition for something bigger, and that means that Hardman, for example, is going to have a stat line like 1 catch for 6 yards from time to time.

Last season, Hardman was a revelation for the Chiefs. A second-round hit for general manager Brett Veach,  Hardman not only made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season but he was named a second-team All-Pro as a kick returner by the Associated Press after averaging 26.1 yards/return—including a 104 yard touchdown.

Beyond that, Hardman showcased a rare ability to stretch the field—a tremendous bonus given the presence of Tyreek Hill on the same offense. Hardman led every NFL receiver with 10 catches or more with 20.7 yards/catch. He also averaged 13.1 yards/target, the single highest total for any WR with 15 targets or more on the year. This means Patrick Mahomes was searching for (and often finding) Hardman deep in enemy territory on a regular basis as a rookie in Andy Reid‘s offense.

Even if Hardman receives considerably more targets moving forward—which the majority of Chiefs Kingdom would agree that he deserves—he’s unlikely to see the sort of body of work he’s truly capable of putting together until 2021. It’s after this current season that veterans like Sammy Watkins and Demarcus Robinson will be free agents once again, and the Chiefs finances are likely going to give Hardman a real chance to shine as the wideout room thins out.

Until then, Hardman is going to have to buy in to the team mentality—a real gift if he’s up for it considering the roster he’s been blessed to play on. His talent deserves more looks, more catches, more attention. For now, however, the Chiefs are simply too loaded.