July 12, 2024

In the Kansas City Chiefs’ Week 18 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers, wide receiver Mecole Hardman distinguished himself among the reserve players who took the field. Despite being only two games into his return from a thumb injury that placed him on Injured Reserve after Week 11, Hardman delivered an impressive performance on offense. He accumulated 77 yards with six receptions, crucially converting third downs three times. One of the highlights was a pivotal 37-yard catch that set up a field goal. As the postseason unfolds, it becomes imperative for the Chiefs to optimize their wide receiver rotation, and Hardman’s standout display in Week 18 underscores his potential contribution to the team’s offensive success in the remainder of the season. Let’s take a closer look at how his performance demonstrated his ability to enhance the Chiefs’ offensive capabilities.

KC Chiefs WR Mecole Hardman returning punts for NFL team | Kansas City Star

Playmaking from the slot

The Chiefs have struggled with inconsistent production from the slot receivers, with the exception of youngster Rashee Rice. Richie James’s increased opportunities have not yet shown any results, and Kadarius Toney has experienced his share of injury setbacks and on-field issues.

Hardman was positioned in the slot in Los Angeles for 69% of his plays, securing three receptions that resulted in first downs. During a slant pattern, he effectively generated the required separation by convincingly initiating an outward maneuver. Upon the defender’s response, a swift cut back inside facilitated an unobstructed completion in the middle.

Later in the game, Hardman gets another first down from the slot. This time, he has to work across the face of a linebacker to get open. He does so by accelerating in front of him, but Hardman still secures the pass when the ball is behind, then shrugs off the linebacker to continue upfield.

Catch strength

Hardman’s play strength was a theme of the game — and something that Chiefs’ slot receivers have lacked at times this year.

During this play-action sequence, Hardman executes a crossing pattern downfield. His initial move is vertically oriented, aiding in creating separation from the trailing cornerback as he transitions across the field. At the catch point, Hardman subtly decelerates and elevates with both hands, executing the motion seamlessly and successfully fending off an attempt to strip the ball.

This marked a notable development for Hardman, who has not typically exhibited the level of strength demonstrated multiple times in Week 18. The Chiefs’ receivers have grappled with this aspect throughout the season, particularly on deep throws. If Hardman can incorporate this improvement alongside his game-changing speed, it logically follows that he would become more actively involved in downfield plays.

Route execution

Nevertheless, this particular play doesn’t support that argument. Hardman executes a deep post, recognizing the safety’s advantage as he makes his way across the field. Acknowledging the safety’s position beating him to the intended spot, Hardman decelerates, but the throw is still made, resulting in an easy interception.

While the coverage effectively plays the route, quarterback Blaine Gabbert’s decision to attempt the throw wasn’t optimal. Despite this, Gabbert is attempting to provide Hardman with an opportunity for a significant play, considering Hardman’s previous impressive catches through traffic in the game.

It’s worth mentioning that Hardman might have been adjusting his route to flatten out and evade the safety. Regardless, he should exhibit greater awareness of the ball’s location when actively navigating his route.

The bottom line

Most of the Chiefs’ roster enjoyed a break during Week 18, providing them with a rejuvenated beginning for the postseason. Nonetheless, players like Mecole Hardman required the on-field experience to enhance their readiness for the playoffs.

While Hardman may not offer a flawless resolution to the Chiefs’ receiver challenges, his consistent ability to make significant plays distinguishes him from other slot receivers on the team. If he can integrate this big-play capability with the additional skills he demonstrated in Los Angeles, he might emerge as a more pivotal asset to the offense than he has been throughout the season.

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