Can Mecole Hardman take advantage of Sammy Watkins absence with Chiefs?

Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins is expected to miss several weeks with a hamstring injury. Who will step up in his absence?

After a hot start in Week 5 against the Las Vegas Raiders, the Kansas City Chiefs offense struggled to put anything together in the second half. One of those struggles was the loss of wide receiver Sammy Watkins late in the second quarter. Losing Watkins to a hamstring injury left the offense without a dominant “X” receiver to move the ball or take the pressure off of other weapons.

With Watkins out of the game, second-year wide receiver Mecole Hardman saw his second game of the year with more than 50 percent of the offensive snaps. Playing a season-high of 69 percent of the offensive snaps, Hardman could only come away with two receptions for 50 yards. Byron Pringle was limited to only ten snaps on offense.

Through the first quarter of the season, questions surfaced regarding Hardman’s lack of opportunities to get on the field. Demarcus Robinson has seen more playing time within the offense behind Tyreek Hill and Watkins but not by much. As far as starters go, Hardman has three starts to Robinson’s one.

Robinson is usually the last progression of Mahomes’ targets so just getting to his designated area on the field consistently is all that’s asked of him. By only playing five percent more of the offensive snap counts, it would seem that he and the second-year receiver play different roles.

Despite more playing time, Robinson has produced less in every category. In fact, he’s barely put up any numbers at all through five weeks. In 2020, he has eight receptions on 15 targets for 50 yards and zero touchdowns. Hardman has hauled in 13 of his 17 targets for 194 yards and two touchdowns. With Sammy out for the next few games, the former Georgia Bulldog will get more opportunities. The question will be who will fill Watkins’ role within the offense.

Watkins brought the physical presence over the middle and in short to intermediate areas of the field. Hardman’s role in Kansas City’s offense has been attacking vertically. Charting his routes over the last four games, just over 62 percent of his routes were vertical routes (corner, post, fade, deep over, etc.). With that being said, 75 percent of his targets have been behind the LOS or within ten yards of the scrimmage line.

Defenses have been consistently looking to take the deep portion of the field away to slow down the Chiefs offense in 2020. Keeping two or three defenders playing deep zones, the completions on throws 20 yards or more downfield have been limited. In 2019, Patrick Mahomes’ completion percentage on deep throws was 48.5 percent, ranking third in the NFL. His completion percentage on those throws this season has fallen to 31.8 percent.

Hardman has seen fewer targets and playing time due to how defenses have played against the Chiefs in 2020. To win underneath against physical defenses, receivers have to get off jams at the line of scrimmage and make plays through traffic. Watkins and Travis Kelce have been the big targets in these areas. Andy Reid has also limited what he is willing to show unless playing a big game, like the one against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 3, where the offense looked as though nothing could slow it down.

In Week 5, Kansas City kept Hardman on the field for 69 percent of the offensive snaps, a season-high. If that continues going forward, the playcalling will have to change. Consistently running plays where receivers are running to general areas of the field instead of specific routes and concepts isn’t going to work with how many defenders teams are dropping into coverage.

Reid may have been keeping most of the creativity for the offense under wrap outside the Baltimore game. Saving alignments, plays, and player abilities until key matchups are common for Reid. Could he save Hardman for a big game, or has Hardman still not shown enough to be trusted in a bigger role?

In either scenario, you could make a case for following the first five games. While Hardman hasn’t shown he can be a top weapon, he hasn’t been asked to either. In only five games during his career, has he seen more than four targets. Most of his targets are designed to come open or get the ball quickly in the open field. His route tree remains limited with flashes of more.

Hardman doesn’t get the ball on this play, but his separation at the top of his route flashed what he could do. Running a deep dig route, he sells vertical without giving any indicators for the cornerback to expect a break. His ability to be running vertically and break 90 degrees to the middle of the field without slowing down is rare.

Beyond the rare routes above, he also does not consistently create his own separation, as displayed here. Even on routes like corners and posts, he tends to round his corners or indicate where he wants to go to the safeties. Between that and mistakes like being in the wrong place or not running the right assignment could both be keeping him off the field.

Early in the game against the Raiders, it’s clear that Hardman wasn’t on the same page as the rest of the offense. Everyone else split out wide run blocks. Instead, Hardman is trying to beat a jam to get out into his route. The cornerback who passes him off and sits in his zone is there to stop the run to that boundary for just three yards. Little stuff like this is enough to keep snaps limited with the depth of the offensive weapons.

The only receiver that has shown the ability to play that X role in Watkins’s place or be able to get off of press-man coverage with consistency is Byron Pringle behind the top guys. He has the size and route-running ability to play the role but, for whatever reason, has yet to see much playing time—even when Watkins is missing time.

Coming off a loss to the Raiders, the team should be more than motivated to go into Buffalo. However, the Bills took a beating against the Tennessee Titans on Tuesday night as well. Both teams will be looking to prove themselves once again. It will be interesting to see what Reid dials up for the offense. A big game like this one with playoff seed implications could bring out more creativity.

Without Watkins in the fold, Reid will likely bring more dialed up plays for Hardman to get him involved more and relieve the pressure off of Hill and Kelce. Whether or not the young receiver will take advantage of the uptick in opportunities will be something to watch. He’s flashed the ability to be more, but consistently doing it is a different story. If he wants a more permanent role in the offense, he will have to prove that he can create separation for himself without the play call’s help.